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You are here: Home Newsroom Our Ideas Themes in the News Archive February 2010 Studies Point to Segregative Effects of Charter Schools

Studies Point to Segregative Effects of Charter Schools

  • 09-23-2009
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Themes in the News for the week of February 8-12, 2010


Students’ race, family income, special needs, and home language are factors that underlie many of the debates for and against charter schools. However, these factors are often addressed in the general language of commitments to equity, hopes to provide opportunity for all students, efforts to close “achievement gaps,” and so forth. Now that three new studies shine a light on the segregative effects of charters, school reformers will have to ask whether this trend is acceptable, reversible, educationally sound, or compatible with an equitable and just schooling system.

The UCLA Civil Rights Project looked at charter schools in 40 states (including California) and the District of Columbia and found that these schools are more segregated than other public schools. Seven out of 10 African American charter school students attend schools that the study defines as “intensely segregated,” –or schools where 90 percent of the students are “racial and ethnic minorities” (UCLA Civil Rights Project, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post).

Charter school students of all races, including white students, are more likely to be in a racially isolated school than their local peers in non-charters according to the UCLA Civil Rights Project. This finding is significant given charter schools’ growing enrollment in recent years. “In 2008, more than 238,000 California students, or about 4 percent of public school enrollment, attended charter schools, up from 112,000 in 2001”(The San Francisco Chronicle). Charters may expand even further as the Obama administration encourages charter creation in its Race to the Top program. “We don't want the Race to the Top to become a race to the past,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, alluding to the era of enforced segregation (Los Angeles Times).

A second new study from the Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) of the University of Colorado and the Educational Policy Research Unit (EPRU) of Arizona State University found that charter schools serve fewer special education students and English language learner (ELL) students than other public schools. “As compared with the public school district in which these charter schools reside, they are substantially more segregated, and the strong segregative pattern found in 2001 is virtually unchanged through 2007” (EPIC/EPRU). Similarly in yet another study, Multicultural Education, Training & Advocacy, Inc. (META) found that English language learners are underrepresented in Massachusetts charter schools (META).

All three studies point to the same phenomenon: Charter school enrollments often do not match their surrounding communities. The three new studies should prompt a much closer look (research, analysis, and public discussion) at who attends charter schools, who attends non-chartered schools, and who benefits from these arrangements. Policy makers are grappling with a long and contentious list of charter school “issues” including public/private control and funding, testing and student achievement, support for “innovation”, alternatives to poorly performing existing schools, opportunities for alternative teacher certification and faculty hiring standards, and much more. They should also be watching for trends toward greater school segregation, imbalances in the distribution of learning opportunities, and whether the benefits of charters are both real and worth the risks.

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Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.