A recent study conducted to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education found that school segregation has increased over the past three decades, especially in urban areas. The researchers cited the proliferation of charter schools as one of two main reasons why segregation has exacerbated during this period, demonstrating an association between places with charter school growth and increases in segregation over the time period in question.1

Yet public charter schools, and other types of public schools on the school choice continuum (such as magnet schools and some “innovation zone” schools), in theory, should have several advantages over traditional zoned district schools in combating segregation because of their ability to eschew constraints that otherwise often reproduce or exacerbate residential segregation in schools.

There are many examples of charter schools, magnet schools, and innovative district schools—such as those in TCF’s Bridges Collaborative—that use their built-in advantages to create and maintain socioeconomically and racially diverse schools; however, these schools are overshadowed by the many thousands that do not and thus may have a hand in moving the integration needle in the wrong direction. Many charter schools that have cropped up or proliferated in recent decades have made deliberate decisions to cater to specific populations of students through strategic recruiting or building placement. What’s more, some magnet schools across the United States have lost their focus on reducing minority group isolation—a goal many of them were originally funded by the U.S. Department of Education to pursue—and failed to create or maintain racial balance in the diverse communities where they typically exist.

If the United States is to make progress on beating back the current trend of rising segregation, public schools on the choice continuum will have to play a critical role. This report looks first at how choice impacts school segregation before highlighting the features of public schools on the choice continuum that do promote diverse settings for students. The report gives examples of schools that excel in these areas, providing a roadmap for policymakers considering how to promote diverse and integrated schools as well as schools and districts seeking to become more diverse.

How Choice Impacts School Segregation

The broader context of school choice, which itself can mean many different things in different places, is highly polarizing in today’s policy debates. In deeply conservative states, a wave of privatization is taking hold, as policymakers aim to make public education dollars available to students and families in private school settings through 529 accounts and school vouchers, such that billions of public dollars now flow to fund these initiatives.2 Destabilizing public education by driving money outside of the public system is not the answer to improving educational outcomes for all students, and certainly undermines what should be a universal American project to bring students of different backgrounds together, since private schools have little to no accountability for whom they serve and how they serve them.(See Appendix Figure A1 for the metro areas where private school most contributes to segregation.)

This report, however, focuses only on public schools on the choice continuum, which include public charter schools, public magnet schools, and public district schools that are not bound by school enrollment zones, but are accountable to the public. Overall, charter schools and magnet schools serve approximately 10.8 percent of children in school, but as the research alluded to earlier demonstrates, they can have a large influence on segregation in the overall system. (Available data on the number of public district schools that do not rely on traditional attendance zone boundaries is not very accurate, so they are not included.)

Figure 1

The notion of choice within the public realm is also, at times, controversial. Proponents of public options such as public charter schools and magnet schools point to their potential to disrupt residential segregation and offer students different, more challenging, or more culturally relevant educational settings. Opponents lump such public options in with private models of choice, alleging that they represent the “privatization” of public education, and in some cases, also find ways not to serve all students.

Regardless of where one stands on the ability for parents in the public system to choose among a set of public options, two important points about choice should not be overlooked. First, unfettered choice—that is, a market system of public options unmoored from residential boundaries (such as has existed in New Orleans recently)—has been shown to maintain or exacerbate segregation, rather than lead to integration by inertia. In environments where parents have near-unlimited choice of where to send their children, however, guardrails such as clear communication and marketing, fair and simple enrollment procedures, priorities and/or multiple lotteries that give equitable access to underrepresented populations, and other measures can ensure that families with wealth, social capital, and privilege are competing on an even playing field with all other families for the most-desired seats. Second, because America’s local school funding system makes the funding of schools highly unequal across communities, America’s wealthy families have always had a de facto choice in where to send their children—by moving to neighborhoods with more opportunity. Allowing options within the public realm through charter and magnet schools offers low-income and middle-class families what wealthy families already have: educational choices.

Allowing options within the public realm through charter and magnet schools offers low-income and middle-class families what wealthy families already have: educational choices.

Combating school segregation is popular with the American public. Recent polling shows that Americans see segregation as a big problem and consider diversity important for their children. In a TCF/Morning Consult poll from March of 2024, 61 percent of Americans agreed that race- and income-based segregation is an issue currently plaguing the country’s public schools. Moreover, 73 percent of American parents consider the diversity of their child’s/children’s schools to be an important consideration in where they choose to raise them. Furthermore, public choice options as remedies to segregation remain very popular among the public. A Gallup poll found that 79 percent of Americans favor creating more regional magnet schools that offer specialized courses or curriculum as a proposal to reduce segregation in public schools.3

And so, with combating school segregation a hot topic in the seventieth year of the Brown decision, and with public choice options being a relatively small but potent component of the public school system—at least as far as school segregation is concerned—the question that truly matters is: How can charter schools, magnet schools, and non-traditional district schools can be better harnessed to promote school integration rather than segregation? What is it that successful public choice schools do well in attracting and serving a diverse student body?

What Public Choice Schools Do Well

There are four salient characteristics that public charter schools, magnet schools, and non-traditional district schools that serve diverse populations model well. First, these schools make a clear commitment to creating a diverse learning environment because it is important to them. Second, they take advantage of racial and socioeconomic diversity in their geographies, deliberately drawing students from various communities. Third, they implement priorities, set asides, or run multiple lotteries to increase the likelihood of diversity. Finally, they utilize themes or specializations that appeal to a diverse constituency and draw a broad cross-section of students.

What follows below is a description of these four characteristics in more detail, as well as profiles of some public choice schools that model them.

Commitment to Diversity: Larchmont Charter

The first and most important characteristic of schools of public choice that successfully draw diverse students is perhaps self-evident: these schools value diversity. School diversity has been shown to have many academic and nonacademic benefits for students of all backgrounds, so it seems obvious that a school would prize diversity in its student body.4

Some school communities that value diversity are afraid to talk about its importance because of common misconceptions about how U.S. Supreme Court case law applies to schools. The decision in Parents Involved In Community Schools v. Seattle Public School District significantly restricted the ways in which schools and districts could use an individual student’s race when determining admission to specific schools;5 however, it placed no restrictions whatsoever on a school or district making a commitment to a racially or socioeconomically diverse student body. It even allowed for several pathways to creating and maintaining a diverse student body.

On the contrary, schools that value diversity, commit to it, and state it publicly are much more likely to draw a diverse student body than schools that do not. These schools typically tout the demonstrated benefits of diversity and put significant thought into how to make a diverse student body feel welcomed and like they belong.

Larchmont Charter School, a public charter with 1,620 students spread across four campuses in Los Angeles that was founded in 2005, is a classic example of a school that centers the importance of diversity in its mission, the first line of which reads, “Our mission is to provide a socio-economically, culturally and racially diverse community of students with an exceptional public education.”6 The school was born out of a frustration by local parents that their local school was not diverse enough or rigorous enough, and thus diversity was central to its origin story.

The school is not only unabashed about the centrality of diversity to its raison d’etre, but it has a clear “why” for its diversity. Per Larchmont:

Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the world. In order to best prepare our children to be participants and leaders in a 21st century community and a global economy, it is our responsibility to give children the opportunity to learn with and from a student population that mirrors our broader community. We do this by recruiting a diverse student population; teaching tolerance, positive interaction, and appreciation of various communities from an early age; and promoting the values of social justice and diversity.7

According to the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University, approximately 30 percent of Larchmont’s students qualify for free or reduced price lunch and 53 percent of students are non-white.8 In the most recent year of available data, the percentage of Larchmont students that met or exceeded expectations on the English Language Arts (ELA) state exam exceeded the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) average by 31 percentage points and the State of California average by 26 percentage points. In Math, they exceeded the LAUSD average by 28 percentage points and the statewide average by 23 percentage points.9

Any student residing in the jurisdictional boundaries of LAUSD is eligible to attend Larchmont, and because of the high demand, the school runs a lottery for eligibility. Families are drawn to the diversity and clear values the school espouses. Families do not need to guess as to whether or not their child will be accepted there—the school touts itself as a place where all children are welcome.

Strategic Siting and Recruitment across Various Communities: Citizens of the World Schools

Residential segregation by race, although declining in the United States,10 is still often a barrier to integrated school environments. However, schools that are not bound by local zones and boundaries, such as charter schools, magnet schools, and some district schools, can take advantage of drawing from diverse communities that may be internally segregated, but not geographically distant from one another.

New charter schools, magnet schools, or boundaryless district schools can take advantage of strategic siting, placing themselves at the crossroads of various communities. This requires proactive planning and decision making on the part of local education agencies (LEAs), as well as a focus on school diversity, instead of just capacity and geography. While school planning departments are ubiquitous through American school systems, forecasting for future school needs, they rarely consider promoting racial and socioeconomic diversity as a primary criteria for new siting; in fact, they often feel political pressure to do just the opposite, such as siting a school in order to serve a specific community.

Not every charter, magnet, or innovative district school has the luxury of selecting where they plan to exist. Already established schools, however, can still be proactive in their recruitment and communication, ensuring they are a visible option for families in different communities, even if they are closer to certain communities than others.

Citizens of the World Charter Schools (CWC Schools) is a national network of schools currently operating in two cities: Los Angeles and Kansas City.11 As an actively expanding network of schools, CWC Schools deliberately focuses on communities that have been historically segregated, but exist within a larger town or city with racial and socioeconomic diversity. They do not start new schools in places that they do not believe they can assemble a diverse school community.

CWC Schools are known for their high academic standards, intentional community partnerships, and efforts to ensure that all students feel a sense of belonging. The current network is very diverse, enrolling a student body that is 40.9 percent Latinx/Hispanic, 32.5 percent white, 9.4 percent multiracial, 8.7 percent AAPI, and 8.4 percent Black/African American across their seven campuses in Los Angeles.12 Because they start new schools in diverse communities, they pay close attention to ensuring intentional relationships are built across students and staff and that all members of the community see it as their responsibility to forge relationships across lines of difference.

When CWC’s Missouri school launched in 2016 (in partnership with local families looking for a diverse educational experience for their children), they strategically selected a site in Midtown, Kansas City, an area of Kansas City proximate to predominantly white, Black, and Latino neighborhoods, to be able to draw from the rich diversity of the community. CWC Kansas City is located near predominantly white neighborhoods like Hanover Place and Central Hyde Park, as well as predominantly Black neighborhoods like Ivanhoe and Oak Park.

CEO Laura Furlong explains the rationale:

We seek to center our schools in communities that can draw a racially and socioeconomically diverse student population. For example, in Kansas City, MO, Troost Avenue has historically served as a dividing line between black and white, rich and poor. By locating our school building close to Troost Avenue, we were able to draw families from both sides of that line. The challenge, as we see in all urban areas, is that over time, gentrification shifts that line and pushes more affordable housing away from our campus. This pushes us to find new ways to ensure that families who are newly priced out of the neighborhood can still access our school.13

Almost a decade after their founding, the school is dynamic and diverse, with a student body that is 39.6 percent Black, 19.7 percent Latino, and 29.1 percent white.14

Strategic Enrollment Practices: Downtown Montessori at Ida B. Wells

Choice alone is not an antidote to segregation. Because families with privilege typically have more time, social capital, and capacity to navigate choice systems in ways that other families do not, they typically gain access to the most sought after schools in open choice systems.

Several enrollment mechanisms exist that enable schools and districts to promote socioeconomic and racial diversity in public choice systems. Creating priorities in enrollment lotteries for categories of students, such as low-income students or students in families experiencing homelessness, ensures such students receive spots by giving them a priority above all other students. Using weighted lotteries—for instance, a weight on certain factors that gives underrepresented students a higher chance of winning an enrollment lottery than other students—is another way of promoting diversity.15 Finally, using multiple lotteries for different categories of students, is yet another way to ensure specific ratios of different types of students.

The most effective mechanisms are ones that are tailored to specific situations, local populations, and diversity goals. Moreover, these mechanisms should not remain static, but rather responsive to conditions on the ground.

In 2014, Dallas Independent School District (ISD) formed the Office of Transformation and Innovation, which was tasked with creating new schools and turning around existing schools with innovative themes and diverse student populations. These schools could enroll students from anywhere in the district, and even outside of the district, and could provide transportation to in-district families while not relying on traditional attendance boundaries.

Downtown Montessori at Ida B. Wells is a transformation school in Dallas that was strategically sited downtown to take advantage of parents from various socioeconomic classes who travel to that part of Dallas for work.16 Moreover, through extensive community outreach, the district learned that a Montessori model was in high-demand for families of various demographic groups, and created a public Montessori option, the first of its kind in downtown Dallas.

Perhaps most importantly, the transformation schools in Dallas utilize a dual-lottery system designed to achieve socioeconomic diversity.17 Rather than running one lottery for all applicants, the district runs two lotteries, one for economically disadvantaged students, and one for non-economically disadvantaged students, essentially ensuring socioeconomic diversity as long as enough students in both categories apply. Downtown Montessori’s dual-lottery system enables it to be very diverse—its student body is 21.8 percent white, 24.8 percent Black, 45.3 percent Latino, with 62.2 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced price lunch. By contrast, only 5.3 percent of Dallas ISD students are white.18

Attractive Themes: Magnet Schools in Wake County Public Schools

Schools that successfully enroll diverse student bodies have an appeal that transcends race and class—often the appealing factor is a theme or specialization. These themes vary greatly across communities, and are most effective when they are tailored to a community’s desires, but common ones focus on the sciences, technology, the arts, or certain niche career themes or pedagogical approaches.

While magnet schools are perhaps best known for having themes (the themes are what make them “magnetic,” drawing students to them), charter schools and district schools often adopt themes for various reasons—to attract students, because their founders believe in a particular approach, or to appeal to stakeholders and authorizers.

Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina has a long track record of successful magnet schools and is a regular recipient of the federal government’s Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) competitive grant.19 The district has an entire portfolio of successful magnet schools that draw a diverse range of students with relevant and attractive themes. Many of their schools are exemplary in their ability to both implement a theme with fidelity and draw diverse populations from a large school district with urban, suburban, and rural populations. Table 1 profiles just a subset of the magnet schools in Wake County.

Table 1
Name Grades Served Theme Description % Black %White % Latino % Asian % FRL
Wake (District as a whole) 21.4 43.7 18.5 11.9 32.1
Enloe Magnet High School 9–12 Gifted and Talented Enloe is one of the premier high schools in Wake County that attracts students who excel in advanced and accelerated coursework. 24.5 35.9 13.6 21.9 24.7
Reedy Creek Magnet Middle School 6–8 Center for Digital Services Reedy Creek exposes students to computational thinking and advanced coding and computer science. 22.1 41.4 20.4 12.5 36.3
Athens Drive Magnet High School 9–12 Global Health Sciences Athens Drive focuses on various branches of medical science and global health, exposing students to such disciplines as medical engineering and health research. 24.9 41.1 21.9 7.7 41.7
Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy 6–12 Cooperative and Innovative WYWLA is focused on providing leadership and an Early College model in a girls-only setting. 37.4 32.3 18.3 6.3 26.3
West Millbrook IB Magnet Middle School 6–8 International Baccalaureate West Millbrook is a certified International Baccalaureate program focused on developing intercultural and respect. 51.4 17.7 23.7 2.9 36.3
A.B. Combs Magnet Elementary School K–5 Leadership Combs is the first elementary school in the country to create a leadership magnet theme. 24.1 43.4 15.9 10.9 37.1
Moore Square Magnet Middle School 6–8 Gifted and Talented Moore Square mixes students who qualify for academically or intellectually gifted (AIG) education (based on North Carolina standards) and those who do not, promoting the belief in all students’ capacity for giftedness. 25.5 55.9 10.9 2.4 23.1

Looking Ahead

In a context of increasing segregation, public schools on the choice continuum have a critical role to play in stemming the tide of a separate and unequal educational system. Charter schools, magnet schools, and boundaryless district schools can take steps to promote a diverse and integrated learning environment for all students.

It is worth noting that many of the examples of schools and districts in this article employ multiple strategies in their pursuit of integration. For example, although Downtown Montessori was highlighted for its unique dual-enrollment lottery, it also was strategically sited (like CWC schools), has an attractive theme (like the magnets in Wake), and has a strong commitment to diversity (like Larchmont). The more schools and districts use these strategies, the greater likelihood they have of success. Another factor worth noting is that the provision of transportation can be a major factor in allowing a diverse community to take root and thrive, especially for schools that are located proximate to, but not directly embedded in, communities they draw from. In Dallas ISD, for example, students in the district who attend transformation schools are all guaranteed transportation, making it much more likely that students who live further away from schools like Downtown Montessori choose to attend.

Ultimately, efforts to combat segregation must include public schools of choice, which can be major drivers of integration because of their built-in advantages to overcoming residential segregation. It is critical to distinguish these efforts from efforts to proliferate choice in the private system, which only drive precious resources out of public education and have no mechanisms for holding private entities accountable to equitable access to their institutions or a high-quality education for students, let alone a commitment to diversity.

In this seventieth year commemoration of the Brown v. Board case, as we recognize that segregation currently is trending in the wrong direction, it is important to highlight and lift up the public charter schools, magnet schools, and boundaryless district schools that are demonstrating that such schools can lead on providing a high-quality, diverse and integrated education for all students, and that often, they are best positioned to be able to lead the charge.


This data below is from TCF’s interactive map in School Segregation in Cities Across America Mapped. For the data in the tables, segregation is measured with the variance ratio, which ranges from 0 (no segregation, meaning every school has the same mix of White students and all other students) to 1 (total segregation, meaning White students and all other students are enrolled in separate schools).

Figure A1

Figure A2


  1. Erica Meltzer, “Study finds segregation increasing in large districts—and school choice is a factor,” Chalkbeat, May 6, 2024, https://www.chalkbeat.org/2024/05/06/school-segregation-increasing-study-finds-charters-are-one-factor/.
  2. Laura Meckler and Michelle Boorstein, “Billions in taxpayer dollars now go to religious schools via vouchers,” Washington Post, June 3, 2024, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2024/06/03/tax-dollars-religious-schools/.
  3. Justin McCarthy, “Most Americans Say Segregation in Schools a Serious Problem,” Gallup, September 17, 2019, https://news.gallup.com/poll/266756/americans-say-segregation-schools-serious-problem.aspx.
  4. “The Benefits of Socioeconomically and Racially Integrated Schools and Classrooms,” The Century Foundation, April 29, 2019, https://tcf.org/content/facts/the-benefits-of-socioeconomically-and-racially-integrated-schools-and-classrooms/.
  5. Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007), https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/551/701/.
  6. Larchmont Charter School website, https://www.larchmontcharter.org/.
  7. Larchmont Charter School website, https://www.larchmontcharter.org/philosophyandapproach.
  8. “Segregation Explorer,” Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University, https://edopportunity.org/segregation/explorer/.
  9. “2023 School Accountability Report Card: Larchmont Charter School,” California Department of Education, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1SYVrSoG6KDuIogBHxn-O0AoQVs3B7eBn/view.
  10. Brady Meixell, Christina Plerhoples Stacy, and Ananya Hariharan, “Residential Segregation Is Declining. How Can We Continue to Increase Inclusion?” Urban Institute, September 30, 2020, https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/residential-segregation-declining-how-can-we-continue-increase-inclusion.
  11. Citizens of the World Charter Schools website, https://www.citizensoftheworld.org/our-cwc-schools.
  12. Citizens of the World Schools website, https://cwclosangeles.org/mission/.
  13. Personal communication with the author.
  14. National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, https://nces.ed.gov/ccd/schoolsearch/school_list.asp?Search=1&DistrictID=2900612.
  15. See, for example, “State Laws on Weighted Lotteries and Enrollment Practices,” National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2015,  https://publiccharters.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/NPC035_WeightedLotteries_Digital_rev.pdf.
  16. “About Downtown Montessori,” Downtown Montessori at Ida B. Wells Academy, https://www.dallasisd.org/domain/24258.
  17. “Transformation School Selection Process: Frequently Asked Questions and Answers,” Dallas Independent School District, Office of Transformation and Innovation, updated October 30, 2023, https://drive.google.com/file/d/14vJyUF_ON41PEJKKJkDKTIFS307OL_Sg/view.
  18. “Segregation Explorer,” Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University, https://edopportunity.org/segregation/explorer/.
  19. Wake County Public School System website, https://www.wcpss.net/.