U.S. Charter Schools Placing Growing Numbers of Students in Racial Isolation

Ivan Moreno et al., Philadelphia Herald Tribune, December 2, 2017

Charter schools are among the nation’s most segregated, an Associated Press analysis finds — an outcome at odds, critics say, with their goal of offering a better alternative to failing traditional public schools.

National enrollment data shows that charters are vastly over-represented among schools where minorities study in the most extreme racial isolation. As of school year 2014-2015, more than 1,000 of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent, and the number has been rising steadily.

The problem: Those levels of segregation correspond with low achievement levels at schools of all kinds.

In the AP analysis of student achievement in the 42 states that have enacted charter school laws, along with the District of Columbia, the performance of students in charter schools varies widely. But schools that enroll 99 percent minorities — both charters and traditional public schools — on average have fewer students reaching state standards for proficiency in reading and math.

“Desegregation works. Nothing else does,” said Daniel Shulman, a Minnesota civil rights attorney. “There is no amount of money you can put into a segregated school that is going to make it equal.”

Shulman singled out charter schools for blame in a lawsuit that accuses the state of Minnesota of allowing racially segregated schools to proliferate, along with achievement gaps for minority students. Minority-owned charters have been allowed wrongly to recruit only minorities, he said, as others wrongly have focused on attracting whites.

Even some charter school officials acknowledge this is a concern. Nearly all the students at Milwaukee’s Bruce-Guadalupe Community School are Hispanic, and most speak little or no English when they begin elementary school. The school set out to serve Latinos, but it also decided against adding a high school in hopes that its students will go on to schools with more diversity.

“The beauty of our school is we’re 97 percent Latino,” said Pascual Rodriguez, the school’s principal. “The drawback is we’re 97 percent Latino … Well, what happens when they go off into the real world where you may be part of an institution that’s not 97 percent Latino?”

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There is growing debate over just how much racial integration matters. For decades after the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional, integration was held up as a key measure of progress for minorities, but desegregation efforts have stalled and racial imbalances are worsening in American schools. Charter schools have been championed by the U.S. education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and as the sector continues to grow it will have to contend with the question of whether separate can be equal.

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Charter schools, which are funded publicly and run privately, enroll more than 2.7 million nationwide, a number that has tripled over the last decade. Meanwhile, as the number of non-charter schools holds steady in the U.S., charters account for nearly all the growth of schools where minorities face the most extreme racial isolation.

While 4 percent of traditional public schools are 99 percent minority, the figure is 17 percent for charters. In cities, where most charters are located, 25 percent of charters are over 99 percent nonwhite, compared to 10 percent for traditional schools.

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Like many other American cities, Milwaukee has seen an exodus of white students since a busing program in the 1970s. Whites now account for only 14 percent of the 78,500 students in the public school system. City schools often have one predominant ethnic group, and many charters are at the far end of that spectrum.

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Nationwide, about half of students reach state proficiency standards in traditional public schools, and on average charters are only a few percentage points behind. Among schools that are 99 percent minority, however, only about 20 percent reach proficiency levels at traditional public schools and about 30 percent do so at charters, according to the AP analysis.

At the Milwaukee Math and Science Academy, more than 98 percent of the 335 students are African American and nearly all qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Less than 20 percent of students score at state proficiency levels for reading and less than 25 percent do so for math. The principal, Alper Akyurek, acknowledges that the school has significant room to improve test scores, but so too do the neighborhood schools his students would be attending otherwise.

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