Charter schools, though meant to be laboratories for solving educational problems, have consistently been complicit in preserving a major barrier to educational equity: school segregation. A 2017 Associated Press report found that 17 percent of charter schools have enrollment that is 99 percent nonwhite, compared to just 4 percent of traditional public schools. This analysis echoed similarly disturbing findings from earlier studies, including a seminal 2010 study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, showing that charters are more likely to be high-poverty or racially isolated than district schools. And at the same time that many charter schools have increased segregation for low-income students and students of color, others cater to white flight. In North Carolina, for example, a newly passed law would allow predominantly white and wealthy towns to create their own charter schools that are not reflective of the diverse county school districts in which they are located. As Brookings fellow Andre Perry pointed out, “Charter schools didn’t create segregation, but the charter school movement isn’t helping to end it either.”
He’s right. Charters are more likely to be located in areas where neighborhood segregation might already be particularly pronounced, but some also target specific populations or rely on free-market school choice schemes that fail to give diverse families access to equal information or resources. These patterns hurt students. Decades of research has shown that segregated schools are linked to achievement gaps and poor student outcomes, while racial and socioeconomic diversity produce academic and social benefits for all students.
…when designed with diversity in mind, charter schools can be an effective tool to give more students access to diverse classrooms.
But a small number of charter schools are swimming against the tide of segregation. In a new report, we analyze roughly 5,700 charter schools in all fifty states to produce the first-ever nationwide inventory of diversity in the charter sector. After reviewing schools’ websites, analyzing enrollment data, and administering a follow up survey, we identified 125 “diverse-by-design” charter schools—schools that have both integrated student body populations and an institutional commitment to diversity. While these schools represent only a dismal 2 percent of the charter sector, they provide powerful examples of the ways that charters can advance their commitment to equity through school integration.
Our research underscores that, when designed with diversity in mind, charter schools can be an effective tool to give more students access to diverse classrooms. Charter schools have the freedom to choose educational approaches that will appeal to families of different backgrounds—and, in most cases, to enroll students from a broader geographic area than allowed by a typical neighborhood attendance zone, loosening the tie between school and residential segregation. In some states, charter schools can even use a weighted lottery based on student characteristics or geography to help ensure diverse enrollment.
The idea of using the charter model for integration is not a new one. When teacher union leader Albert Shanker proposed the idea for charter schools thirty years ago, he articulated a vision for laboratory schools that would empower teachers and bring together students of different backgrounds. As a whole, however, the charter school sector has largely abandoned its goals of teacher empowerment, experimentation, and integration, instead focusing on centralizing management control, promoting competition, and targeting niche populations.
To maximize effectiveness for students, more charter schools need to return to these roots. In some cases, successful strategies are catching on as charter schools increasingly learn from one another about what it takes to enroll and serve diverse groups of students. At the unionized Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans, for example, intentional recruitment and community partnerships have resulted in a charter school that not only represents the diversity of their neighborhood, but also uplifts the voices of neighbors in policymaking and practices. Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy in Rhode Island takes a different approach to achieve diversity, promoting integration across a region by enrolling students from two lower-income urban and two higher-income suburban school districts.
In cities like Washington, D.C., where charters serve 47 percent of public school students, integrated charter schools aren’t only beneficial for the students that attend them—they are necessary to help disrupt segregation across the entire system. And however one feels about their existence, the number and enrollment of charter schools has been slowly growing for decades, and it does not seem like these schools are likely to disappear. Over the past decade, charter school enrollment has almost tripled nationally—increasing from 1.2 million students in 2006–07 to 3.1 million in 2016–17. Given how they are currently entrenched in the educational landscape, advocates and policymakers that ignore how charters contribute to segregation, or how charters can help alleviate it, allow the sector to abdicate its responsibility to advance racial equity and educational justice.
…integrated charter schools aren’t only beneficial for the students that attend them—they are necessary to help disrupt segregation across the entire system.
To be sure, achieving school-level diversity is only one part of what is needed to move from the segregated status quo to a more integrated public school landscape. If charter schools are to become leaders in the fight against school segregation, they must think both outside and inside the schoolhouse doors. Integration within a school requires not just that school enrollment be accounted for, but also that classroom demographics, instructional practices, and school culture are aligned with the goal of creating equitable opportunities and strong outcomes for all students. Integration across public education requires that schools coordinate so that a diverse environment for one set of students is not created at the expense of others.
Overwhelmingly, the charter school sector has stepped away from the promise of Brown v. Board, endorsing far too many separate, and sometimes unequal, schools. But if we acknowledge that many charters and charter networks contribute to segregation, we must also hold them accountable for helping to mitigate it, and encourage them to use proven strategies to promote diversity wherever possible. The 125 diverse-by-design schools we identified show that charter schools can be a tool for integration—if they so choose. At a time of rising segregation in education, we need every tool we can get.