Charter Schools, Segregation, and Anxiety About Social Cohesion

A new book on charter schools and segregation, whose senior editor, Iris Rotberg, I first worked with in 1970 on the War on Poverty, has reminded me how tribally divided the policy research field has become. The book is worth reading as a step toward a still-needed non-tribal discussion of schooling for democracy.

Choosing Charters: Better Schools or More Segregation? (Rotberg and Glazer, 2018) is a collected volume with chapters by 24 authors and coauthors. Many of the concerns it raises—the narrowness of the population served by charter schools, limitations of “no excuses” schools, challenges of equity in admissions and discipline and special education, financial challenges to districts with big fixed cost structures, performance and equity problems of online charter schools—are well documented, clearly important, and the focus of a great deal of problem-solving and research within the charter community.

There is a lot good in the book. Some of the chapters are original, carefully argued, and nuanced, particularly Jeffrey Henig’s “Charter Schools in a Changing Political Landscape,” and Adam Gamoran and Christine Fernandez’ “Do Charter Schools Strengthen Education in High-Poverty Urban Districts?”

True to form for a collected volume, most other chapters rely on evidence already presented elsewhere and occupy different places in the space between scholarly detachment and polemic. However, in combination the various chapters confirm what most observers of charter schools already know: that charter schools serve different demographic groups depending on where they are located, are disproportionately located in low-income and minority areas in big cities and in those places serve mostly low-income and African American families—but, in some states, also exist in suburban areas where they serve predominantly white populations.

Nothing in the book warrants a conclusion that charter schools are major factors in the national trend of greater separation of the races in schools, which is driven by racial isolation by neighborhood, population change (fewer white students), the cost of housing, and a transportation system that makes cross-town movement difficult.

Some of the book’s authors are not picky about the evidence they use, comparing the racial compositions of whole municipalities and school districts with schools that exist in particular neighborhoods. When focused on cities with large numbers of charter schools, these comparisons reliably show that African American students are more racially isolated in charter schools than in the districts as a whole—as are African American students in traditional public schools in the same neighborhoods.

None of the authors cite the most definitive study, in which RAND researchers followed individual students from traditional public schools into charter schools. These results differ by city: in one city, African American students move to less segregated charter schools, and in another, they move to schools with a 15 percent greater concentration of African American students. However, across the cities studied, “the average increase in the African American concentration experienced by an African American transfer student was 3.8 percent.”

Clearly, charter schools are not solving the problem of school segregation, and in some places they are making it a little worse. Readers can judge whether 38 additional African American students in a school of 1,000, or less than 2 in a class of 50 could have practical consequences.

Some chapters also cite ways charter schools can exclude the students who are hardest to educate (but provide no data on frequency), show how a small minority have been captured by religious groups, and illustrate how self-seeking parents influence district policy by threatening to transfer to charter schools (but again don’t say how often this happens).

The book also includes some unsympathetic characterizations of “no excuses” charter schools, but does not explain how these differ from the district-run schools that the same students would otherwise have attended, or why some parents think these are good for their children.

On these topics, the difference between the book and the set of problems charter operators are working on is mostly a matter of tone and interpretive emphasis. However, the book takes a sharp turn near the end. The concluding chapter warns repeatedly of the “social costs” of charter schools, costs that are not defined but in context apparently refer to issues raised previously in the book—differentiation of schools, increased racial isolation, inability of district leaders to control all schools politically, and financial burdens on districts with high fixed and legacy costs.

On the first two “costs” the book provides no evidence of harm, other than summary statements about segregation, expressing concern that “education programs that serve low-income and minority students have become quite different from those that serve the rest of the student population,” (p. 225) and that “charter schools have moved the country farther away from the collective and democratic forms of education.” (p. 222) It does not seem unfair to expect the authors to provide evidence, other than the fact of differentiation, to support these assertions, or to say what is being done in traditional public schools that better prepares students for life in a democratic society.

On the third “cost,” it is clear that many districts have struggled for decades to maintain school quality in the face of enrollment losses, and that charter schools are a real (albeit fairly recent) factor. However, districts are not helpless and can (and always could) take steps to protect students by cutting, rather than shielding, fixed costs. As CRPE’s work has shown, charter supporters can also help districts make necessary financial adjustments.

It is one thing to share the authors’ concerns about equity and current threats to social cohesion (which I do) and quite another to think they have made the case either that charter schools are threats to those values or that schools controlled by elected school boards effectively promote them.

The causes of today’s political malaise are too complex to be laid only on the schools, whether charter- or district-run, though there is reason to question the quality of civics and history teaching. Henry Levin’s suggestion that charter school organizations work on a curriculum on applying knowledge to local political, social, and economic challenges (p. 202) is an excellent one, and is a good idea for district-run schools too. A recent report on the positive effects of Democracy Prep Public Schools on graduates’ voter registration and elections participation shows that at least some charter schools are taking civics seriously.

It’s time to ask: What kinds of experiences in schools promote support for social equality, free speech, and respect for fair political process? This is a question that can engage people on all sides of the education policy debate. Addressing it can also lead to a more informed discussion about the social costs and benefits of charter schools.

— Paul Hill

Paul T. Hill is Founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Research Professor at the University of Washington Bothell.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College