Finding ways to increase the numbers of applicants and charter schools led by Black and Latino/a people is a critical area of inquiry. We need high-quality research that can help light a path for how to get there.
That’s why I was excited to read the recent Education Next article, “How Charter School Regulations Harm Minority School Operators,” describing new research on how regulation may be a deterrent to getting more Black and Latino/a people involved in charter schooling. This is a question the organization I lead, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, is focused on. We want to identify how regulation does and does not advance student learning and the public interest—a core element of state accountability policy and charter school authorizing. Inappropriate and stifling regulation thwarts the ability of aspiring and existing charter school operators, including those of color, to innovate and serve the unique needs of students and families. Effective regulation balances protecting public interests such as addressing opportunity gaps and taxpayer investments, while maximizing the time schools spend on teaching, learning, and meeting student needs.
Yet, I was disappointed in the article because the study does little to advance our knowledge on that question, in large part because of how the study defines and uses race. Given our country’s long and tortured history of research being used inappropriately as a tool to advance inequity, researchers must take great care in using and interpreting race-based differences.
As a Black researcher who has spent decades trying to understand and advance equity in school systems—especially around charter school authorizing, school discipline, and special education—I’m very interested in research that provides solid evidence to advance issues of racial equity. Unfortunately, this research falls short of that bar.
The study describes searching social media profiles, employee profiles, and local news stories for the point of contact from each charter school application to code applicant race.
The researchers did not ask points of contact how they self-identify. Guessing an applicant’s race based on a picture or other “clues” in their digital footprint instead of how someone self-identifies, creates significant practical and validity challenges and is fraught with error. To “ensure sufficient validity” of their race variable, a second researcher went through a sample of applications, but at best that means the second researcher established the reliability of coder perceptions, not the validity of the measure.
The study also uses one person—the “designated point of contact” on an application—to represent the entire applicant group’s race. There is no reason to think that the perceived race of the point of contact is representative of the applicant group. Assuming that one person’s perceived race somehow represents the school leadership and governing board’s racial make-up is, again, fraught with error.
There are some other significant challenges to the study, including highly questionable measures of state “regulation,” not examining how changes in state regulation relate to changes in applicant approval (particularly important because state regulation changed significantly during the years of the study), and no discussion or examination on the degree to which state regulation relates to student performance, especially for Black and Latino/a students.
I hope the critique of this study doesn’t deter the aspirations of the authors. Their question is a good and important one. I hope the authors and other researchers continue exploring ways to build a robust pipeline of new charter school leaders and board members of color, identify barriers getting in the way, and chart a path forward in how to sustain people of color in charter school systems. There is no doubt that significant barriers exist, including inappropriate regulation, to realizing this vision. I hope this critique serves as a cautionary tale that creating an evidence base on racial differences must be carefully and thoughtfully done, so that ensuing recommendations and actions will lead to real improvement for school leaders, families, and, ultimately, students.
M. Karega Rausch, Ph.D. is the interim president and CEO and serves as the vice president of research and evaluation at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.