At Dugsi Academy, a public school in St. Paul, Minnesota, girls wearing traditional Muslim headscarves and flowing ankle-length skirts study Arabic and Somali. The charter school educates “East African children in the Twin Cities,” its website says. Every student is black.
At Twin Cities German Immersion School, another St. Paul charter, children gather under a map of “Deutschland,” study with interns from Germany, Austria and Switzerland and learn to dance the waltz. Ninety percent of its students are white.
Six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites, segregation is growing because of charter schools, privately run public schools that educate 1.8 million U.S. children. While charter-school leaders say programs targeting ethnic groups enrich education, they are isolating low-achievers and damaging diversity, said Myron Orfield, a lawyer and demographer.
“It feels like the Deep South in the days of Jim Crow segregation,” said Orfield, who directs the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Race & Poverty. “When you see an all-white school and an all-black school in the same neighborhood in this day and age, it’s shocking.”
Charter schools are more segregated than traditional public schools, according to a 2010 report by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. Researchers studied 40 states, the District of Columbia, and 39 metropolitan areas. In particular, higher percentages of charter-school students attend what the report called “racially isolated” schools, where 90 percent or more students are from disadvantaged minority groups.
In Minnesota, the birthplace of the U.S. charter-school movement, the divide is more than black and white.
St. Paul’s Hmong College Prep Academy, 99 percent Asian- American in the past school year, immerses students “in the rich heritage that defines Hmong culture.” Its Academia Cesar Chavez School–93 percent Hispanic–promises bilingual education “by advocating Latino cultural values in an environment of familia and community.” Minneapolis’s Four Directions Charter School, 94 percent Native American, black and Hispanic, promotes “lifelong learning for American Indian students.”
Charter schools, which select children through lotteries, are open to all who apply, said Abdulkadir Osman, Dugsi’s executive director.
“Some people call it segregation,” Osman said. “This is the parent’s choice. They can go anywhere they want. We are offering families something unique.”
Minnesota, 85 percent white, is a case study of the nation’s growing diversity. Since the 1970s, Minneapolis and St. Paul have become a magnet for Hmong refugees, who fought alongside Americans in the Vietnam War. In the 1990s, Somalis sought refuge from civil war.
St. Paul, where the nation’s first charter school opened in 1992, is 16 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic and 15 percent Asian-American, according to the U.S Census Bureau.
Charter schools should be similarly diverse, recommended a 1988 report that provided the groundwork for Minnesota’s charter-school law.
Instead, in the 2009-2010 school year, three quarters of the Minneapolis and St. Paul region’s 127 charter schools were “highly segregated,” according to the University of Minnesota Law School’s race institute. Forty-four percent of schools were 80 percent or more non-white, and 32 percent, mostly white.
Segregation is typical nationwide. Seventy percent of black charter-school students across the country attended “racially isolated” schools, twice as many as the share in traditional public schools, according to the report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.
Half of all Latino charter-school students went to these intensely segregated schools, the study found. In the West and the South, the two most racially diverse regions of the country, “charters serve as havens for white flight from public schools,” the report said.