Charter schools in Utah increasingly are serving wealthy, white students and leaving poorer and minority children behind in traditional public schools, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis shows.
Although charter schools by law are open to every student because taxpayers fund them, in practice many educate only a narrow slice of the population. Some Utah school districts with high minority student populations are home to charter schools with significantly smaller percentages of ethnic minorities, and many of the newest charter schools will open this fall in affluent communities with little diversity.
Of 13 charter schools opening this fall along the Wasatch Front, 11 are in communities with median household incomes that exceed the state average, by as much as 58 percent. Plus, even charter schools in diverse communities often don’t reflect the diversity that surrounds them.
The Tribune’s analysis shows that in the 2005-06 school year, the Salt Lake City School District, where 52 percent of students are ethnic minorities, has charter schools in its boundaries with 21 percent and 18 percent minority populations. In the Ogden City School District, where half the students are minorities, charter schools have 28 percent and 15 percent minority populations.
When Latina artist Ruby Chacon, of Salt Lake City, decided to enroll her son in the Salt Lake Arts Academy, her family made a choice.
“We had to weigh whether we wanted him to be in a diverse school or we wanted to give him a more solid education,” she said. “We figured we’d be able to compensate for the [lack of] diversity.”
Lack of free transportation to charter schools, inadequate outreach to minority communities and the schools’ locations in affluent neighborhoods are just a few of the barriers keeping minority students out of the schools, critics say. Parents who found charter schools are often white, and wealthy enough to pursue the monumental task of creating a new institution. Low-income parents may have neither the time nor the financial means to found their own schools.
Government officials are aware of the homogenous nature of many charter schools.
“The Office for Civil Rights is becoming more concerned about schools that have a special mission like charters, like magnet schools, like international baccalaureate programs,” said Richard Gomez, Utah State Office of Education coordinator of educational equity. “Those are all pretty exclusive unless they make an effort to reach out to a population that normally wouldn’t be part of it.”
Gomez doesn’t accuse charter schools of deliberate exclusivity.
“But when you don’t do certain things to be what I would call proactive . . . does it make it any less desirable, any [more] acceptable?”
When Jennifer Mayer-Glenn, a teacher at North Star Elementary in Salt Lake City, talks to Latino parents about alternative public schools, they often express surprise at what’s available, she said.
Cultural divides can make it difficult for many minority families to understand how regular public schools work, Mayer-Glenn said. Discovering charter schools requires yet another step.
Although some existing and planned charter schools do actively recruit minorities, Latino activist Frank Cordova, of South Jordan, sees charter schools as a mechanism for white flight as the majority population leaves traditional public schools “to get away from the minority” population, he said. Julie Adamic, director of John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove and a member of the Utah State Charter School Board, defends charter schools. She’s heard radio spots, and seen newspaper ads and signs advertising charter schools.
Once a parent discovers a charter school, the next hurdle can be simply securing one of the few coveted spots.
In addition to the siblings exception, charter schools may give enrollment preference under other limited conditions, perhaps providing opportunities to favor certain students.
The children of founding parents, plus a nominal number of people who donate substantial time or expertise to starting charter schools, are allowed preference, for example.
State rules say no more than 10 percent of a school’s students can receive such preference, but Carol Lear, an attorney for the State Education Office, has seen instances when volunteers’ children have made up more than 10 percent of charter schools’ enrollments.
“It’s hard for us to enforce the 10 percent rule, but we certainly try,” Broberg said. “It comes down to what is the spirit of this law. It’s all about getting people involved, not excluding other people.”
Once students with legal enrollment preference are enrolled, charter schools must hold lotteries to fill other enrollment vacancies. But even these can be conducted strategically—by making sure “desirable” families are contacted and encouraged to participate.
State Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who backed legislation creating charter schools, said the schools are driven by the need for parental choice in public education. He doesn’t know how to increase diversity in charter schools and isn’t sure it is necessary.
“It may be that ethnic populations are being served well and may feel satisfied with their neighborhood schools,” he said.
Like Stephenson, Scott Smith, Charter School Board chairman, believes parental choice should remain the paramount consideration.
Smith said his board provides support for parental choices but can’t dictate an increase in charter school diversity. Concentrations of charter schools in certain areas indicate that parents are involved in their children’s educations, he said.
“It comes down to the philosophy that we need to leave this open for parents to decide and not have a bureaucracy decide,” Smith said.