Thirty years ago this spring, Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, delivered a landmark speech at the National Press Club in which he called for the creation of public schools that would serve as laboratories for experimentation. As outlined in the speech and subsequent writing, Shanker suggested that these new “charter” schools should enhance teacher voice in how schools are run and draw children from economically and racially diverse backgrounds.

Shanker was inspired by a 1987 visit to a school in Cologne, Germany, in which teams of teachers made major decisions on the school policies, and immigrant Turkish and Moroccan students learned alongside native German pupils. Early charter school proponents in Minnesota picked up on these ideas. In 1988, the Citizens League, a community policy organization in that state, suggested charter schools have “an affirmative plan for promoting integration by ability level and race,” and that these schools should “be at least as concerned about segregation by income as segregation by race.”

Many years later, however, as my Century Foundation colleague Halley Potter and I pointed out in our book, A Smarter Charter (2014), most charters serve neither goal: they are, on the whole, more segregated, and they tend not to give teachers a voice in the form of a union. On the issue of segregation, a December 2017 examination of charter schools by the Associated Press found that more than 1,000 of the nation’s 6,747 charters had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent. Recent scholarship confirms that while traditional public schools are segregated, charter schools on average are even more so.

This should be of major concern for the charter school community. Economic and racial school segregation is neither natural nor acceptable. As Andre Perry, a Brookings Institution scholar who has deep roots in the charter school world, has noted: “Education reform without an explicit attempt to dismantle the sources of inequality isn’t a moon shot toward justice; it is simply a maladjustment to injustice.” It is not surprising that the research on charter schools is mixed, Perry writes. “By not addressing segregation, reformers are turning off the stove when the house is going up in flames.”

Against that generally depressing background, however, is the emergence of a small but growing number of charter schools that are “diverse by design.” These schools intentionally locate in integrated neighborhoods, for example, or use a lottery weighted by family income. As Potter and another Century Foundation colleague, Kimberly Quick, found in the nation’s first inventory of diverse charter schools, 125 such schools have racially and socioeconomically integrated enrollments and indicate an institutional commitment to diversity. Many have been created in recent years.

What are the best ways for charter schools to go about enrolling a student body reflective of the larger student population? And just as importantly: what do they do once they bring together students to ensure that students from all backgrounds are honored, included, and well-served? Potter and Quick, along with journalist Amy Zimmer, provide intriguing answers in case studies of four diverse-by-design charter schools: Blackstone Valley Prep (Rhode Island); Citizens of the World Charter School (California and Missouri); DSST (previously the Denver School of Science and Technology) (Colorado); and Morris Jeff Community School (Louisiana).

This collection of profiles offers a useful cross section of charter schools based on size (large chains and stand-alone schools), teaching approaches (from mildly strict “no-excuses” approaches to progressive ones with an emphasis on social and emotional learning), and geography (representing the east coast, west coast, midwest, and the south). What binds them together is a common commitment to school integration by race and socioeconomic status. In subsequent months, The Century Foundation will be publishing additional analyses of individual charter schools that are integrated by design. But among these four initial case studies, a few powerful lessons emerge:

First, high academic standards and racial and economic diversity fit hand-in-glove. All of these schools are diverse and boast high achievement—sometimes very high achievement. At DSST, for example, Quick notes, “school integration, educational equity, and academic quality function as complementary, never competing values.” Indeed, whereas the much-vaunted KIPP charter organization walked away from Denver’s Cole Middle School several years ago, in what journalist Jay Matthews called a “failure,” DSST has sought to create a diverse and academically strong environment at Cole. English Language Learners, low-income, and minority students at Cole generally outperform similar students statewide on tests. The strong academic performance at diverse charter schools is no surprise: fifty years of research suggests a given student will perform better over time in an economically integrated school than one that has high concentrations of poverty.

Second, these schools are not just about raising academic achievement: they are also in the business of promoting thoughtful citizens for American democracy. As Bill Kurtz, the founder of DSST, told Quick: “We have lots of really strong academic high schools in this country, that serve privileged populations, who turn out frankly arrogant kids.” At Morris Jeff Community School, the commitment to democracy was underlined by its ready embrace of the right of teachers to unionize. With its dual commitment to student diversity and workplace democracy, one observer told Quick that Morris Jeff could be thought of as the “anti-charter charter.”

In the best tradition of charter schools as laboratories, all four of the schools profiled have engaged in innovations, particularly around how to ensure that diverse school buildings are inclusive of all students, parents, and teachers:

  • While most charter schools and traditional public schools draw upon a single district—parents have actually been arrested for trying to send their child across district lines—at Blackstone Valley Prep, Zimmerman notes, the goal is to consciously draw upon four communities, urban and suburban.
  • In some economically- and racially-mixed schools, upper-middle-class and white parents dominate parent organizations. At Blackstone Valley Prep, however, parent leadership is designed explicitly to draw one parent from each of the four communities served.
  • Likewise, Potter reports that at Citizens of the World Charter School, in order to make Spanish-speaking parents feel welcome and honored, one of the principals flips the traditional power dynamic and speaks in Spanish, and provides an English translator for the English-speaking parents.
  • Many schools appropriately take efforts to ensure greater levels of staff diversity by race in order to better reflect the student population, but Citizens of the World takes the additional step of recognizing class origins as well. The network of schools has set a goal that roughly 50 percent of staff are people or color or from low-income backgrounds, Potter notes.
  • While mixed-income and mixed-race schools often resegregate at the classroom level, with white, Asian, and wealthier students tending toward the higher tracks, and other students of color and low-income students stuck in the lower tracks, some schools, like DSST, have sought to do away with that pattern. Kurtz tells Quick his vision for DSST was: “How can we create a single college-going track for all kinds, serving a truly diverse population? Those two things are probably the revolutionary idea.”
  • Although many charter schools fail to provide transportation, Morris Jeff invested in seven school buses to ensure that students from low-income backgrounds would not be shut out of the opportunities the school provides.

Amidst an otherwise discouraging national education landscape, in which “choice” in the form of privatization is championed at the highest levels, in these Century Foundation school profiles we are reminded of the possibility of a healthy and equitable type of choice—choice within the public school system that is expressly designed to promote integration of students. Thirty years after Al Shanker’s speech—and sixty-four years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education—small but important efforts are sprouting to show that it is possible to create integrated environments in public schools that provide what the authors of Brown called “the very foundation of good citizenship.”


Editor’s note: data from a 2017 Associated Press report was incorrectly cited, and was corrected on April 24, 2020.