Data and the Debate over Diversity in Charters

Arianna Prothero, Education Week, June 13, 2016

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The Mastery School is one of three schools in Minneapolis’ Harvest Network of Schools, set up to serve almost exclusively low-income African-American and East African students–some in single-gender programs like this one. “African-American families have significant needs,” explained Eric Mahmoud, the founder of Harvest. “Many of our children are walking around with hundreds of years of history saying they can’t [make it].”

Mahmoud believes a curriculum steeped in African history and culture is crucial to closing academic achievement gaps between poor black students and their wealthier, white peers.

He represents a school of thought in one of the most persistent and nebulous debates of the charter sector: whether there is a harmful lack of diversity in the publicly funded but independently run schools of choice.

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A snapshot of state-level data shows significant variations in charter and noncharter enrollment by race and region.

Nationally, black students make up 28 percent of charter school enrollment, compared to only 15 percent of noncharter enrollment, according to an analysis by the Education Week Research Center of federal data from the 2012-13 school year.

White students make up 35 percent of total charter school enrollment and 50 percent of noncharter.

Meanwhile, the gap in enrollment share is smaller for Hispanic students than for their black and white peers. Hispanic students account for 29 and 25 percent of charter and noncharter enrollment, respectively.

Overall, more than 2.5 million students are enrolled in charter schools, or about 5 percent of the total public school population. But the degree to which charter schools skew toward a certain racial or ethnic group varies greatly from state-to-state.

Black students, for example, not only make up large majorities of the charter school population in Maryland, Louisiana, and Tennessee, but there’s also a significant gap in the enrollment of black students between charter and noncharter schools.

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Opening charters aimed at closing achievement gaps between low-income urban minority students and their white and Asian-American peers is also a priority for a handful of well-endowed foundations, which have helped fuel sizeable growth among charter schools targeted to these populations.

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Charter schools aimed at serving a specific racial or ethnic group are not unusual. Minnesota, the birthplace of the charter school idea 25 years ago this June, is home to several charters that use the extra freedoms granted to them through state law to open schools targeted to African-American, Native American, Somali, and Hmong students.

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There are those within the charter community who bristle at characterizing schools that serve predominately one race of students as segregated–especially as the country’s district schools remain siloed by race and income. They are wary of any official effort to force charter schools to become more diverse.

In Minnesota, for example, an administrative law judge recently rejected the state education department’s plan to include charter schools in its integration rules.

“Segregation is when the state endorses a plan for forcing people of color into inferior circumstances,” said Chris Stewart, a school choice advocate and former Minneapolis school board member. “Black people choosing culturally affirming schools that have a lot of other black people in them, that’s not segregation.”

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