Yesterday Richard Kahlenberg and I spoke to an audience at Harvard Graduate School of Education about our book, A Smarter Charter, which makes the case for encouraging more charter schools that empower teachers and educate students of different socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds together in the same classroom. Both ideas were part of teacher union leader Albert Shanker’s original vision for charter schools, and both are supported by research as strategies for improving student outcomes.
One topic that came up in yesterday’s conversation on charter schools is the way that many state and federal laws, as well as philanthropic priorities, make it difficult to open and sustain integrated charter schools. In New York, for example, charter schools are required to give enrollment preference to students who reside in the district in which a charter school is located, limiting options for integrating across district lines. And in Massachusetts, state law requires a certain number of charter schools each year be located in the state’s lowest-performing districts, and limits new charter schools in certain districts to accepting applications from “Proven Providers” only, that is, charter school operators that have already demonstrated success. Provisions like these limit options for opening charter schools in more economically mixed areas and make it hard for new operators who might propose a strategy for integrated enrollment to break into the charter school game.
But Harvard Professor Paul Reville, former secretary of education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, spoke from the audience to defend Massachusetts’ charter law as a reflection of the political demand for charter schools that serve the neediest students. He asked, where is the political support for integrated charter schools?
This question is critical for the future of charter schools. So far, political and popular support for charter schools has focused on charter schools that serve as many at-risk students as possible in high-poverty settings. But there’s good reason to think that support for integrated charter schools is growing.
Growing Enrollment in Integrated Charter Schools
A growing number of charter schools nationwide have made it a key part of their mission to enroll a socioeconomically and racially diverse student body. The National Coalition of Diverse Charter Schools, of which I’m a founding adviser, was formed last year and now includes roughly two dozen networks, operating nearly fifty charter schools across the country.
In a recent article for Education Next, longtime education journalist and author Richard Whitmire profiles growing interest among middle-class families in sending their children to charter schools. Not all of these charter schools have been intentional about diversity. Great Hearts Academy, for example, received criticism for a charter school application in Tennessee that lacked a plan for reaching out to low-income families. But others, such as DSST Public Schools in Denver, Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy in Rhode Island, and E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., have attracted families of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Parent Demand for Diverse Schools
In the sixty years since Brown v. Board of Education, school choice and integration have often been opposing forces, but there is evidence of growing, yet often untapped demand among parents for diverse schools that could help change this equation. According to a survey by the Fordham Foundation, about a fifth of all parents value the goal of learning “how to work with people from diverse backgrounds” among their top educational priorities for their children. Likewise, researchers Allison Roda and Amy Stuart Wells from Columbia University found that advantaged parents in New York City expressed a strong desire to send their children to diverse public schools, but often lacked high-quality options from which to choose. (For one first-person look at the process, read New York City writer and parent Leslie Seifert’s description of her family’s “excruciating” school choice process in The Atlantic.)
Right now, what’s missing from the equation are more high-quality integrated schools and school choice policies that support diversity. But charter schools, along with magnet schools and district diversity-minded choice policies, can help fill this void. A number of charter schools such as Community Roots Charter School and Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in Brooklyn, High Tech High in San Diego, and Larchmont Charter School in Los Angeles, use weighted lotteries to ensure that the school choice process results in socioeconomically diverse enrollment. And in Kansas City, MO, a group of parents seeking to create a new socioeconomically and racially diverse public school in their neighborhood recently invited Citizens of the World Charter Schools, which operates socioeconomically diverse charter schools in California and New York, to open schools in their community.
A Savvy Political Move for Charter Advocates
Putting aside research on the educational benefits of integration and parent demand for diverse schools, there’s also a purely political reason for charter school advocates to support more integrated charter schools: including more middle-class families can help in the fight for charter-friendly policies.
In an interview for A Smarter Charter, Neerav Kingsland, former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, explained why his organization made its first grant to a socioeconomically integrated charter school. First, it made sense as a strategy for boosting educational achievement. Second, “it’s sound politics. So long as the charter world . . . is considered something that is for poor people of a certain color, I think that limits your ability to really change the country and change the way the country educates children.”
When educational research and political strategy align, there is a good chance to see real change. And if that means that more kids get a chance to attend integrated public schools—charter or district—that’s a good thing.