July 14, 2003

Charter schools and segregation

The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University has produced a new study, Charter Schools And Race: A Lost Opportunity for Integrated Education (PDF), by Erica Frankenberg and Chungmei Lee. Please note as well the Executive Summary and the press release. According to the executive summary:

This report details a disappointing set of findings regarding its central question: charter schools are largely more segregated than public schools. Segregation is worse for African American than for Latino students, but is very high for both. In some states, white student isolation in charter schools is as high as that of African Americans. The problems reported here may not be due either to the intent or the desires and values of charter school leaders. They may reflect flaws in state policies, in enforcement, or in methods of approving schools for charters.

It is a strange study, meant primarily, it seems to me, to be quoted in the press. I cannot imagine that this work has anything to offer to a serious student of schools policy.

The situation is that charter schools are found disproportionately in inner cities. It may be of interest to ask why this is so, but the report doesn't address that issue. Taking it for a fact, then it is only natural that charter schools would disproportionately have a high minority population. The study authors might have avoided the loaded and pejorative language of segregation to describe the situation that charter schools are, in their demographics, not much different than public schools in the same geographic environment.

The authors could, of course, have undertaken a sincere study to investigate if charter schools have a special appeal to Black and Hispanic students, beyond what one would expect on the basis of the location of the schools. I don't know if it is a particularly interesting question in this generality - given the diversity of charter schools, as of public schools, it may be more interesting to focus on specific schools or districts rather than on charter schools generally - but in any case, the authors didn't think to ask.

The report was featured in the Boston Globe on Sunday. (That article quotes Frankenberg as saying that charter schools remain more integrated than public schools, but the press contact for the Civil Rights Project describes that as a mis-quote. Should have been: more segregated.) Joanne Jacobs covers the study with reference to a book that she is writing about one overwhelmingly Hispanic charter school. The Center for Education Reform has also paid attention and has put out a press release criticizing the study. Thanks to Education News for the first pointers to this study and the press coverage.

Posted by Bas Braams at July 14, 2003 06:35 PM