Last week, one million public school students across New York City entered their classrooms for the start of the new year. While these students are, as a whole, an incredibly diverse bunch—with no racial majority and three-quarters of students coming from low-income backgrounds—few students attend schools that reflect that diversity. As of last year, less than one third of all New York City schools met the New York City Department of Education’s definition of “racially representative” (defined as falling within 20 percentage points of the citywide average of 70 percent black and Hispanic enrollment), and a similarly small proportion were socioeconomically balanced (defined as falling within 10 percentage points of the citywide average for enrollment of low-income students).

Efforts are underway that could help change those numbers. This year, the New York City Department of Education released the city’s first-ever school diversity plan, which establishes goals for increasing racial and socioeconomic integration across the city’s public schools over the next five years. At the state level, the New York Board of Regents has included integration as a goal in the state’s draft plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, adding new incentives and supports for schools to promote socioeconomic and racial integration. The Board of Regents has also created a working group focused on school diversity and integration to guide this work moving forward.

Though these plans, working groups, and statements are important steps forward, there is much more that could be done to increase their potential impact, from making the city’s diversity targets more ambitious, to developing stronger approaches to inter-district integration across the state. One important factor that is currently conspicuously missing from both city and state efforts is the role for charter schools. With one in ten New York City students attending charter schools, leaving these schools out of the picture when developing strategies to address school segregation is a missed opportunity.

How Charters Could Help School Integration

As a whole, charter schools across the country are not known for advancing school integration. In fact, the charter school movement has often emphasized serving as many disadvantaged students as possible, and nationwide, charter schools are more likely than district schools to be racially or socioeconomically segregated.

But many of the flexibilities of the charter school model can be used instead to advance school integration, if diversity is built into the school’s goals and design. In our book A Smarter Charter, Richard Kahlenberg and I examine how the original vision for charter schools, as proposed by teacher union leader Albert Shanker, was to create laboratory schools in which teachers could take on new leadership roles, while educating students of different backgrounds who come from across a broader geographic area. The Diverse Charter Schools Coalition (of which I’m a board member) includes thirty-eight charter schools and networks across the country, eight of which are located in New York City, that have made diverse enrollment part of their school’s mission.

Here in New York City, the charter model has several features that could be used to promote school integration:

  • District-Wide Enrollment. Most public elementary school students in New York City attend a zoned neighborhood school, so patterns of residential segregation in the city are often reflected (and sometime amplified) in district schools. Charter schools, however, can enroll students from throughout a community school district (and, when there is space, from other community school districts), increasing the potential to bring together more diverse groups of students from multiple neighborhoods.
  • No Selective Admissions Requirements. By law, charter schools may not have any admissions requirements based on academic, artistic, or athletic ability. They must take students on a first-come, first-served basis or hold an admissions lottery when there are more applications than available seats, without preference for students based on attendance records or parent involvement. By contrast, most district high schools in New York City use some sort of selection criteria based on student achievement or engagement—from the highly selective specialized high schools that admit students based only on their scores on a single standardized test, to “limited unscreened” schools that (until the practice was eliminated earlier this year) gave preference to students who attend an information session or open house. These selective admissions requirements end up sorting students not only by ability and engagement but also by race and class, whereas admission by lottery creates a more even playing field that could encourage diversity. In practice, charter schools sometimes break or undermine the rule for non-selective admissions by illegally counseling out students with special needs, or by suspending or expelling large numbers of students, just as some district schools in the city have questionable admissions practices. But the practice of non-selective admissions, when respected, gives charter schools a good foundation for bringing students of diverse backgrounds and abilities together.
  • Weighted Lotteries to Promote Diversity. While charter schools are not permitted to consider academic achievement in admission, charter schools in New York State can choose to give preference in their lottery to students at risk of academic failure (including low-income students), English-language learners, or students with disabilities. For example, Brooklyn Prospect Charter School provides a preference for low-income students at some of its campuses, and Community Roots Charter School reserves seats for students who live in several public housing developments located next to the school. These admission preferences can be tools for creating a diverse student body if schools use the weighted lottery to help ensure that a critical mass of students come from at-risk backgrounds while also drawing applications from a broad population of families.

Necessary Policy Changes

While there are already a number of ways in which charter schools could become tools for integration in New York City, several policies also hold charter schools back. In order for more charter schools to enroll diverse student bodies, the following policy changes are needed:

  • Revise Enrollment Targets. Under New York State charter law, charter schools are required to “demonstrate good faith efforts” to enroll at least as great a percentage of low-income students, students with disabilities, and English-language learners as does the school district in which they’re located. In New York City, the community school district is used as the unit of comparison. While the idea behind this law was to make sure that charter schools were serving at-risk students and not just “creaming” relatively more advantaged students, in practice it makes it hard for charter schools to enroll a diverse student body reflective of the broader school-age population, due to the fact that district school enrollment is segregated. In Brooklyn’s District 13, for example, the overall population is racially and socioeconomically diverse: as of 2010-2011, the average median income was around $60,000, 8 percent of residents lived in public housing, and the population was about 40 percent white. However, less than 60 percent of students who lived in the district actually attended district schools, whereas the remainder—a majority of whom are white—attended schools in other districts, charter schools, or private schools. As a result, enrollment in the district schools was overall roughly 90 percent black and Hispanic, with nearly 70 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. When neighborhood demographics and public school enrollment are this dramatically incongruent, charter schools could be part of a strategy that increases the uptake of students into the public sector, thereby encouraging the transition towards a city with better integrated schools. However, the law currently pushes charter schools instead to uphold the status quo of district enrollment, even when that is not reflective of the overall demographics of an area.
  • Expand Opportunities for Inter-District Enrollment. New York City charter schools are required to give preference to students who reside within the community school district in which the school is located. In practice, this means that an oversubscribed charter school usually enrolls almost exclusively in-district students. If the law were changed to support inter-district enrollment, a charter school that is located on the border of two community school districts with different demographics—such as a school bordering districts 13 and 17 in Brooklyn, or districts 3 and 5 in Manhattan—could create an opportunity to integrate students across those district lines.
  • Establish a Universal Enrollment System. New York City families that want to apply to charter and district schools currently have to navigate a complicated maze of different enrollment processes. Most, but not all, charter schools in the city use the same enrollment form, so that a family can use one form to apply to multiple charter schools; but some schools have different application deadlines and lottery dates. And if a family is applying to district schools as well, it must simultaneously undergo an entirely separate process through the Department of Education. The complicated nature of applying to public schools in New York City can prevent families with less information or fewer resources from applying to more than a few school options, district or charter. It also means that there is currently no system by which charter schools and district schools can coordinate enrollment. In other cities—like Washington, DC, and Denver, CO—a universal enrollment system allows parents to apply for both district and charter schools through a single portal, thereby reducing selection bias. Such a system can also be used to balance enrollment in ways that ensure diversity across a set of schools, district and charter.

Moving Forward

Changing New York State’s charter law to revise enrollment targets and create more opportunities for inter-district enrollment could encourage more charter schools to enroll racially and socioeconomically diverse student bodies. But beyond these changes at the legislative level, the New York City Department of Education and New York State Board of Regents and Education Department would do well to help ensure that charter schools are part of the conversation about addressing school segregation in the city and state.

The Regents’ working group on school diversity and integration should consider how charter schools fit into the picture and make sure that charters are included in policies for promoting school integration by, for example, making sure that they are eligible for grant programs focused on diversity.

Likewise, as the New York City Department of Education starts acting on its school diversity plan this fall, the first job of the newly created Advisory Group should be to look for ways that the plan could be improved. Including a role for charter schools should be one of those improvements.

Learn more about The Century’s Foundation work about charter schools in New York City by watching the live stream of our event  “How Can Charter Schools Help Integrate New York City?

Cover Photo/Source: NYC Department of Education Facebook.