School Segregation: Are Charter Schools the Problem?

Natalie Gross, EWA, February 7, 2017

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In a 2016 Civil Rights Project research brief, “Brown at 62: School Segregation by Race, Poverty and State,” Orfield and his co-authors wrote that it has been a long time since the challenge of school segregation has been met with viable approaches to integrate schools by race, ethnicity, and income levels.

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The project’s last national look at charter schools, in 2010, found that racial and ethnic isolation of minorities is far more common in charter schools than traditional public schools. Seventy percent of black students enrolled in charters attended schools deemed “intensely segregated.” (The report defines such segregation as occurring when at least 90 percent of students were minorities.) This level of segregation was twice as high as in traditional public schools, the report said. The same analysis also found that half of Latino charter school students attended “intensely segregated” schools. (Critics say the national data in the report are misleading, since so many charters serve inner-city neighborhoods.)

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But is racial isolation necessarily a bad thing?

Chris Stewart, who is a regular contributor to the Citizen Ed blog, described a “homegrown” charter system in his home state of Minnesota that’s divided by choice, where the No. 1 priority is educating students and meeting their needs in ways the school district has not.

“We have Somali schools, we have Hmong schools, we have schools for Native American kids,” Stewart said. “And those communities don’t really see their schools as segregated or as isolated, they see them as kind of culturally affirming environments for kids that they can’t get in a very white state like Minnesota.”

Stewart later added, “When the government assigns you by race to inferior schools, that is traditionally what we have considered to be segregation. When parents pick a culturally affirming program for their child, and they are from a historically marginalized population like Indians or black people — I happen to be a black Indian — that is so far from the traditional understanding of segregation that it’s almost insulting to call it that.”

But while Orfield sees nothing wrong with a school of choice emphasizing and celebrating a culture, he said charter schools should not be designed to limit entry to students who are not of that race and culture.

“They have a right to have schools of their own on their reservation, on tribal lands,” he said of Native Americans. “They don’t have a right to have a school for just one race using public funds and public spaces. That’s against our Constitution. That’s what the (Brown v. Board) decision is about.”

For her part, Kristie Dragon said “integration in and of itself will not solve anything,” and described integrated schools that look diverse on paper but operate on two separate tracks based on students’ race — one college-bound and the other not.

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Ultimately, Stewart said, “durable, enduring white privilege” is at the root of segregation, and he sees “no basis” for claims that charters drive or aggravate segregation in schools.

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