Charter Schools, Traditional Public Schools Similarly Segregated

Flawed comparisons lead Civil Rights Project to unwarranted conclusions

Hoover Institution/Education Next News Release

For Immediate Release: April 27, 2010
Contact: Gary Ritter, University of Arkansas,, 479-575-4971
Brian Kisida, Nathan Jensen, Joshua McGee, University of Arkansas, 479-575-3172

STANFORD — New research conducted by Gary Ritter and associates at the University of Arkansas finds that the charter sector and the traditional public-school sector are not very different in the level of segregation experienced by students. The research is published in “A Closer Look at Charter Schools and Segregation,” which will appear in the Summer 2010 issue of Education Next and is now available online.

The new findings contradict the conclusions drawn by the authors of a study released in January 2010 by the UCLA-based Civil Rights Project (CRP). The authors of the CRP study, “Choice without Equity,” concluded that charter schools are much more segregated than traditional public schools. Ritter finds that “when examined more appropriately, the data actually reveal small differences in the level of overall segregation between the charter school sector and the traditional public-school sector.”

The basic flaw in the CRP study is that it compares the racial composition of charter schools, which tend to be located in inner cities, with that of traditional public schools, which are located in all different kinds of environments. “Based only on enrollments aggregated to the national and state level, the authors repeatedly highlight the overrepresentation of black students in charter schools in an attempt to portray a harmful degree of segregation,” co-author Brian Kisida explains. “This comparison is likely to generate misleading conclusions for one simple reason, as the authors themselves point out…  ‘the concentration of charter schools in urban areas skews the charter school enrollment towards having higher percentages of poor and minority students.’”

Ritter continues, “Instead of asking whether all students in charter schools are more likely to attend segregated schools than are all students in traditional public schools, we should be comparing the levels of segregation for the students in charter schools to what they would have experienced had they remained in their residentially assigned public schools.”

The CRP report includes an analysis of whether charter or traditional schools are more segregated within 39 metropolitan areas, however, the analysis does not take into account the fact that charter schools are disproportionately located in low-SES urban areas within those metropolitan areas.

The authors of the new study modified the analysis conducted by the CRP so that the percentage of students in segregated charter schools in just the central city would be compared to the percentage of students in segregated traditional public schools within the same central city for 8 large metropolitan areas. The results confirm that the Civil Rights Project’s report overstates the relative level of segregation in the charter sector.

For example, the Civil Rights Project reports that, in the metropolitan area surrounding the District of Columbia, 91.2 percent of charter students are in segregated schools, compared with just 20.9 percent of students in traditional public schools. However, the reanalysis shows that, if the comparison is restricted to students in the central city, the percentage of charter students attending segregated schools stays roughly the same, but the percentage of students attending segregated traditional public schools jumps to 85 percent.

After re-analyzing the data for all 39 metropolitan areas, the authors of the re-analysis conclude, “Using the best available unit of comparison, we find that 63 percent of charter students in these central cities attend school in intensely segregated minority schools, as do 53 percent of traditional public school students.”  They note that this re-analysis likely underestimates the true levels of segregation in the traditional public schools that the charter school students would otherwise attend because, even within central cities, charter schools are more likely to open in neighborhoods that are more segregated.

Please read “A Closer Look at Charter Schools and Segregation: Flawed comparisons lead to overstated conclusions,” by Gary Ritter, Nathan Jensen, Brian Kisida, and Joshua McGee, available online at

Gary Ritter is professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas.  Nathan Jensen, Brian Kisida, and Joshua McGee are research associates in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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