Posted on April 16, 2015

White Parents in North Carolina Are Using Charter Schools to Secede from the Education System

Jeff Guo, Washington Post, April 15, 2015

It is hard, at first, to find anything wrong with the idea that some public schools should have the freedom to be a little different. This was the original pitch for charter schools, as think-tank scholars Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter recount in their recent book A Smarter Charter.

“Schools were meant to be laboratories for experimentation from which the traditional public schools could learn,” Kahlenberg told the Post’s Valerie Strauss last week.

President Obama has lavished praise on charters for this same reason,calling them “incubators of innovation in neighborhoods across our country.” His administration has provided more in charter school grants than any other.

It’s true that the charter movement has a sunny side. KIPP schools, for instance, mostly serve low-income and minority students, putting them through extra-long school days and imposing strict rules on their behavior. Many KIPP schools have accomplished what their public school counterparts couldn’t: yanking up test scores for kids on the wrong side of the achievement gap.

But for every successful school, there have also been failures. The research is mixed on the performance of charter schools, and it’s a mistake to believe that different is necessarily better. The question then becomes one of equity: Who gets to attend the good charter schools?

Setting aside the drama between charters and teachers unions, or complaints that charter schools lead to the privatization of public education, there has been the persistent critique that charters increase inequality by plucking advantaged students out of traditional public schools.

The most recent cautionary tale comes from North Carolina, where professors at Duke have traced a troubling trend of resegregation since the first charters opened in 1997. They contend that North Carolina’s charter schools have become a way for white parents to secede from the public school system, as they once did to escape racial integration orders.

“They appear pretty clearly to be a way for white students to get out of more racially integrated schools,” said economics professor Helen Ladd, one of the authors of the draft report released Monday.

Charter schools in North Carolina tend to be either overwhelmingly black or overwhelmingly white–in contrast to traditional public schools, which are more evenly mixed. {snip}


Parental preferences are part of the problem. The charter school admissions process is itself race-blind: Schools that are too popular conduct lotteries between their applicants. But if a school isn’t white enough, white parents simply won’t apply.

In previous research, Ladd discovered that white North Carolina parents prefer schools that are less than 20 percent black. This makes it hard to have racially balanced charter schools in a state where more than a quarter of schoolchildren are black.

“Even though black parents might prefer racially balanced schools, the fact that white parents prefer schools with far lower proportions of black students sets up a tipping point,” the authors write. “Once a school becomes ‘too black,’ it becomes almost all black as white parents avoid it.”

Looking at students in grades 4-8, the researchers found that the regular public school population in North Carolina has become less white over the past 15 years (from 64.1 percent white to 53 percent white), while the charter school population has grown more white (from 58.5 percent white to 62.2 percent white).

Not only that, but the kids choosing charter schools these days also seem to be more able. The researchers examined how students had been scoring on standardized tests before they entered charter school. It used to be that kids with below average test scores applied to charter schools. But in recent years, the kids going into charter schools tend to have above-average test scores.

The researchers argue that this changing mix of students explains much of the test score gains among North Carolina’s charter schools. By their calculations, the schools haven’t gotten that much better at teaching students–but they have gotten better at attracting more able students.