Charter Schools: Segregation through the Back Door

Once upon a time, families had school choice:  they could enroll their children in the local public school with all the neighbor kids or they could pay tuition to private schools.  For years, private school advocates argued that families paying tuition should not have to pay taxes to support public schools.  That argument went nowhere.  Instead, they got an even better deal:  tax revenues siphoned off to their private schools, now reformulated as charter schools. 

In the past few weeks, I've had the chance to meet with parents in three diverse cities:  Portland, Chicago and Bakersfield.  The three states have organized their school systems slightly different, but parents' stories are the same.  One of these is my daughter, recently returned to Portland from several years overseas.  Her home is in a mixed urban neighborhood and she looked into schooling options for our 8-year old grandson before returning.  The neighborhood school, King, was impressive.  A new principal showed vision and leadership and knew where she wanted to take the school.  Though the neighborhood is about half white and half black, Dylan will be the 8th white child in the school.  He's used to diversity in his school though (coming from Central Asia) and that's not the issue.  The bigger issue is that the school has had to focus on basic skills rather than the enrichment opportunities schools with a range of backgrounds can afford the time to offer.  NCLB's pressure on these urban public schools only increases year after year, with tougher targets to meet with a narrower band of struggling students.  If they don't devote most of their time to remedial math and reading, they will be closed under the harsh NCLB penalties. 

My daughter tried to enter the charter school lottery in Portland but was unsuccessful.  There were no 3rd grade openings and she learned that only kindergarteners are likely to get in.  All other slots are taken.

There are over 5000 charter schools in the U.S. with the majority in cities.  Nearly half of those are in just 4 states:
  1. California has 860 charter schools.
  2. Arizona has 566.
  3. Florida has 413.
  4. Texas has 387.
Total from just 4 states:  2226 charter schools.

With the continuing backlash against immigrants and all things foreign, I checked which states have the highest immigrant populations:
  1. California 10,213,135
  2. New York 4,522,080
  3. Texas 3,569,825
  4. Florida 3,195,405
  5. Illinois 1,862,755
  6. New Jersey 1,768,350
  7. Massachusetts 938,590
  8. Arizona 830,285
And just as interesting, the states with the highest estimated illegal immigrant populations:
  1. California with 2,209,000 illegal immigrants
  2. Texas with over 1,041,000 illegal immigrants
  3. New York with 489,000 illegal immigrants
  4. Illinois with 432,000 illegal immigrants
  5. Florida with 337,000 illegal immigrants
  6. Arizona with 283,000 illegal immigrants
The similarity of these lists exceeds mere chance.  High immigrant populations correlate with charter school popularity.  With most charter schools (55%) in urban areas, is resegregation the result?
    After hearing from friends in cities in three states, it's clear that in all of those cities, the charter schools' primary function seems to be siphoning the upper tier of students from public schools.  Charter schools are not responsible for special education students (about 12% of students) or ELL students (5% of students).  Other students not attending charter schools are renters or those whose families have had to move during their school years.  The much-lauded lotteries for charter school admission only really apply to a school's first year and its kindergarten classes after that.  Families who've tried to participate in the lottery for 3rd or 6th grades quickly learn there just aren't openings for them.  So if you rent or are a migrant worker, forget about charter schools.

    That leaves the narrow band of families who likely own homes and do not relocate and those who can provide transportation to the usually more distant charter school.  So what happens to the neighborhood public school?  With more of the middle class students gone, the local school has increasingly more special education, ELL, high poverty and lower academic skill students.  Seeing this, more and more middle class families seek other options.  Remember:  most people's perception of "a good school" is not one with better teachers or administrators; it's one with wealthier parents.

    Now all of this competition for charter school slots might lead you to think they must be providing better education.  The research does not bear that out.  What it does tell us is that charter schools have poorer test scores (in spite of more privileged students) and are much more racially and ethnically segregated than public schools.

    The latter statistic will change though.  Our urban schools will all be resegregated soon.  In 1963, Governor George Wallace of Alabama blocked schoolhouse doors and famously claimed
    "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever." 
    We all thought he lost that battle.  Maybe not.


    1. Interesting post. You may be interested in the work of the National Coalition on School Diversity (

    2. I would also point out that CA and TX are among the biggest states in the country, and therefore just going to have more schools, period.

      The thing I find interesting about this post is that basically your own daughter is attempting to exactly what you are accusing others of doing: trying to send her kid to an upper-class school with white children, rather than a lower-class school with minorities. You imply that these other parents are racist (and doubtless some of them are) but how many of them are just like your daughter--simply concerned about their own child's well-being and wanting them to attend a 'good' school, not one struggling just to get by?

      I agree that segregation is a problem in our school system, but I also have sympathy parents who want their kids to be in "good" schools. I myself was a bright student who, even in "good" schools, was taught a curriculum aimed 80% of the time at students who were not at the same place academically as I was. (1 day a week I got to participate in a program which was actually designed for smart kids.) My absolute WORST year was the one year I spent in a diverse (and very well-funded, innovative, great teachers, blah blah) school. I was a shy, quiet, and bookish student, and the other students there did not appreciate this in the least.

      The only relief came when I finally made it to private school.

      As a result, I have simply chosen not to send my kids to school. I don't trust public schools to be safe and academically challenging, and private schools are expensive. School choice may have unfortunate consequences (and may not even work), but I understand why people want it--and most of them probably aren't racist at all. They just don't want to send their kids to a crappy school.


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