I’ve spoken about socioeconomically and racially integrated charter schools to supporters of school integration, as well as to charter school advocates. In both crowds, I’ve felt a bit like a pariah.
Folks in the charter school community often get nervous at the mention of integration. They favor market-driven enrollment and school autonomy, ideas that could be threatened by lotteries weighted to promote integration or requirements that charter schools meet diversity targets. Furthermore, for schools focused on providing better options for the most disadvantaged students, the idea of switching their focus to serving many middle-class students as well as low-income students may seem inefficient. In order to get behind the idea of diverse charter schools, the charter school community needs to be convinced that socioeconomic integration is a powerful educational reform to reduce the achievement gap, and that there is a demand for more-integrated schools.
On the flip side, supporters of school integration frequently oppose the presence of charter schools. For example, I recently received an e-mail from Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York, in response to an article that I wrote in Educational Leadership about the power of socioeconomic integration to boost achievement, and the role that diverse charter schools are playing in helping advance school integration. Carol, a supporter of school integration and a pioneering leader of a widely successful program to raise achievement by de-tracking classes at her school, is skeptical of charter schools. She graciously agreed to let me share her e-mail:
I wholeheartedly agree with your argument that integrated schools offer great hope (we would probably agree the best hope) for closing gaps…I am very concerned, however, about the advocacy for integrated charters. I believe that is an incomplete solution fraught with dangers. In cities or towns with low-income populations they are likely to draw wealthier students from private schools and the most motivated poor students. It does not solve the problem of segregated neighborhoods and districts, and leaves the kids in the local public in an even worse situation.
Recently, Kevin Welner, of the University of Colorado, and the National Education Policy Center, wrote about the processes which result in a more selective body of students in charters. When you combine those processes with the literature on peer effects, the negative effects of the presence of charters—integrated or not—on the local public school students become apparent. It is not a reform without costs to the most vulnerable students who are left behind.
Carol is not alone in her concerns. (Two integration supporters from New York City, Khin Mai Aung and David Tipson, make a similar case in Poverty & Race.) Advocates for school integration tend to think about system-wide reforms, coordinating balanced enrollment across a district or area and, when choice is offered, controlling for diversity. They need to be convinced why charter schools, operating as stand-alone units that can potentially throw a wrench into more systemic plans for balancing enrollment, are worth pursuing as another strategy for integration.
The Century Foundation has produced extensive work presenting the research in support of socioeconomic integration to the broader education community, including charter school advocates. But we have not done as much to explain to school integration supporters why charter schools are a model worth pursuing. So, for Carol and other supporters of integration who worry about the impact of charter schools, here are three reasons why I think charter schools are an important tool for school integration.
School choice is already a reality; we need to focus on providing more equitable access to choice, not slowing the growth of choice.
There is a chance that kids in our country might be better off if everyone was thrown into a hat and assigned to a school randomly. The more that choice is an element in getting into a good school, the greater the risk that students whose parents have less access to information or less time to devote the school search will be disadvantaged.
But, according to a recent Brookings report, more than half of all parents in this country already exercise choice over their children’s school, and 27 percent of parents do so by selecting their home based on access to schools. If we stop the expansion of charter schools and other public choice schools, middle-class families will still have the option to select private schools or move into a different school district, but low-income families will be left with very few options.
The solution to the inequities introduced by choice is not to limit choice but to expand it. Charter schools should conduct aggressive outreach to low-income families, and more districts should adopt a “controlled choice” system like the one in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Isolated academic successes are valuable alongside systemic change.
We should continue to work toward integrating schools across whole districts or regions, but this is a difficult process. It makes sense to look at the level of individual schools as well.
High-performing diverse charter schools, such as the ones that Richard Kahlenberg and I profiled in a 2012 Century Foundation report, are providing rich educational experiences for the children and families they serve. While a small group of diverse charter schools cannot solve all of the problems of segregated school systems, they can still help advance school integration beyond their walls. Charter schools can develop innovative practices for serving a diverse group of students that could be shared with other schools. These schools can also have a ripple effect simply by showing parents, teachers, and students what vibrant education in a diverse setting can look like, making them advocates for expanding the number of socioeconomically and racially diverse schools. And if charter authorizers hold schools accountable for considering the demographic dynamics in their area and in neighboring schools, we can make sure that diverse charter schools are not unintentionally increasing segregation at other schools.
The charter school community could be a powerful ally for school integration.
The charter school movement has captured the imagination of education reformers, policymakers, and philanthropists. Just twenty years after the opening of the first charter school, charter schools now serve more than 2 million students. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws. In the past year alone, charter school enrollment grew by 13 percent. A community with so much momentum could be a useful partner for integration advocates.
Right now, charter schools are more likely than traditional public schools to have high concentrations of poverty and racial isolation, but this need not be the case. Charter schools have the freedom to draw students from across different school attendance zones, and in many cases this power could be used to increase integration. If integration supporters could convince more charter school advocates that integration is an effective and in-demand tool for boosting achievement, together they could push for policies—such as allowances for weighted lotteries and freedom to enroll students across district lines—that would facilitate integration.
Charter schools pose opportunities as well as challenges for integration, but no method of integrating public schools is easy. (Balancing enrollment across district schools has its own host of political challenges.) School integration advocates should be open to using many methods—traditional district schools, alternative public schools, magnet schools, and charter schools—to achieve their goal. Integrated charter schools are only part of the solution, but, if planned thoughtfully, they can be an important part.