Torturing the Charter Schools Until They Confess

When charter schools first hit the scene in the early 1990s, many observers (like me) viewed them as a bit of a compromise—something that advocates of school vouchers and opponents of choice might be able to agree on.  Charters represented both choice and the public sector.  However, perhaps because vouchers didn’t expand fast enough or because charters did spread across the country, choice opponents have increasingly set their sights on the charter sector.  In recent years, critics of charters have moved beyond looking at the academic impacts of charters and have begun to consider other impacts, such as the influence of charters on school segregation.

The best work on this question, such as that done by RAND in 2009, reveals the somewhat intuitive answer — since charters generally locate in racially segregated urban areas, the students they attract come from relatively segregated traditional public schools.  In the end, as RAND tells us, students who move into charter schools generally choose schools with racial compositions similar to those of the traditional public schools they exited.   (This is not surprising given the highly segregated state of the traditional public school sector in most US cities.)

Earlier this year the UCLA-based Civil Rights Project (CRP), jumped on the anti-charter bandwagon when it released “Choice without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards.”   This was, in my view, just the latest salvo in a continuing barrage of assaults against charter schools by critics of choice. Sadly, this report received lots of uncritical publicity in major media outlets, despite obviously flawed analyses.

Along with colleagues Brian Kisida, Nate Jensen, and Josh McGee, I was surprised by the CRP’s underlying analyses and the findings. We decided to reanalyze the data used by the CRP authors (the 2007–08 U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data (CCD) and we just published our results in “A Closer Look at Charter Schools and Segregation,” which will appear in the Summer 2010 issue of Education Next.

The key flaw in their report, as we describe in more depth in the article, is that the CRP authors compare the racial composition of all charter schools to that of all traditional public schools. This is clearly an inappropriate analytic strategy because the geographic placement of charter schools practically ensures that they will enroll higher percentages of minorities than will the average public school.  As we show in our article (with the data attached so that anyone can choose to review or re-analyze it), our more appropriate analytic strategy clearly demonstrates how the CRP authors overstated their findings.

In fact, the authors themselves must have had to laugh a bit at some of the liberties they had to take with the data in their unsuccessful attempt to portray charters as harmful to racial integration.  This was our favorite, from page 43 of the report:

“In some cases, like Idaho, charter school students across all races attend schools of white isolation: majorities of students of all races are in 90–100% white charter schools.”

Seriously … we didn’t make this up …  the authors wrote this.  This was used as evidence of the harm done by charters — despite the obvious fact that Idaho is nearly 95 percent white.

However, our key concern here isn’t really that the authors drew conclusions well beyond the data and used an obviously inappropriate point of comparison.  Even if the authors’ analyses were spot on (they’re not), the conclusion that the proliferation of charters represents a “civil rights failure” is way off base for two key reasons:

1. The majority of students in center cities, in both the public charter sector and in the traditional public sector, attend intensely segregated minority schools. We know this, any casual observer of urban schools knows this, and the well-intentioned CRP knows this.  So, the CRP authors are most certainly slinging their arrows in the wrong direction by focusing on the failings of charter schools.  Charters only serve fewer than 3% of US public school children; the remaining 97% are compelled to attend traditional public schools. If we are truly concerned about limiting segregation, then this is where we should look to address the problem.

2. Moreover, the fact that poor students flee segregated traditional public schools for similarly segregated charters cannot be viewed as an indictment of charters. Indeed, this is the stance that was taken by many charter advocates in the days following the report’s release. Leaders of many charter organizations, before they had any chance to view the details of the report, quickly responded that they were honored to serve minority families who chose the charter schools after a search for attractive schooling options. The CRP authors are simply wrong to compare these active parental choices to the forced segregation of our nation’s past. (The authors of the report actually call some charter schools “apartheid” schools.)  This hyperbole serves to trivialize the true oppression that was imposed on the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of the students seeking out charter options today.

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