Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Charters and school segregation

New study looks at segregation in charter schools

My guest is Kevin G. Welner, professor of education policy and program evaluation in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and director of theEducation and the Public Interest Center. He can be reached at welner@colorado.edu.

By Kevin G. Welner
The Washington Post published an article last Wednesday about a study from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles which analyzed charter schools across the country and found them to be substantially more racially isolated than traditional public schools. The study has received quite a bit of attention, as well as pushback from charter school advocates.

Today, CU-Boulder’s policy center, along with its partner policy center at Arizona State University (collectively, EPIC/EPRU) is releasing a studyhttp://epicpolicy.org/publication/schools-without-diversity that, coincidentally, asks some of the same questions as the UCLA study did.
Our study provides a comprehensive examination of enrollment patterns in schools operated by private corporations and finds these schools to be segregated by race, family income, disabilities and English language learner status. As compared with their local public school districts, these schools operated by Education Management Organizations, or EMOs, are substantially more segregated, and the strong segregative pattern found in 2001 is virtually unchanged through 2007.

This new study, "Schools without Diversity: Education Management Organizations, Charter Schools, and the Demographic Stratification of the American School System," is written by Gary Miron, Jessica Urschel, and Elana Tornquist of Western Michigan University, and William Mathis of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Please find this new report on the web here. (http://epicpolicy.org/publication/schools-without-diversity)

The fact that our conclusions are remarkably similar to the UCLA study is particularly noteworthy. The two studies, conducted independently using different data, different researchers and different methods, both found extensive segregation in charter schools.
This type of independent verification is extraordinarily important. It establishes that the findings are robust – are not just the result of one particular way of looking at the data. Together, these two new studies paint a powerful picture of charters adding to the school segregation caused by the nation’s highly segregated neighborhoods.

The EMO study is particularly important because the Obama administration has placed a great deal of faith in the scaling up of nonprofit EMOs (sometimes called Charter Management Organizations, or CMOs) as part of the administration’s turnaround strategy.
The findings of this new study suggest that these policies have the very real potential to be harmful to the nation’s social and educational interests.

Having just read the various responses to the UCLA study, allow me to pre-emptively address those concerns, which may also be raised in response to the EPIC/EPRU study:

1.Pointing to the segregation is in no way condemning the schools, teachers, or students at those segregated schools. Individually, these can be great schools. What these studies highlight is a policy shift away from the Brown v. Board of Education understanding and ambition. We’ve moved from “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” back to a version of Plessy’s “separate but equal,” generally stated as something like, “segregation doesn’t matter; what matters is that we hold every school accountable for excellence.”
2.While high-quality segregated schools – whether charters or not – deserve praise for their excellent academic outcomes, I am troubled by the abandonment of the diversity goal. Why, in reading the responses to the UCLA study, do I see so many people buying into a false dichotomy between excellence and diversity? We should approach charter schools with the foundational understanding that diversity and high achievement are mutually reinforcing and then structure our charter policies accordingly.

3.The reality is that charter schools as a whole do not appear to generate improved test scores. So, looking at these two new studies, it seems that we are getting the harms of segregation without any significant achievement benefits. Yet charters and choice are here to stay, so the questions we should be asking concern how to best structure choice policies to further both goals – diversity and excellence.
The UCLA Civil Rights Project offers several recommendations for restoring equity provisions and integration in charter schools. They include establishing new guidance and reporting requirements by the federal government; incorporating some features of magnet schools into charter schools; heightened enforcement of existing state-level legislation with specific provisions regarding diversity in charter schools; and monitoring patterns of charter school enrollment and attrition, focusing particularly on reporting the demographic information of charter school students on low-income and English Language Learning characteristics.

4.Both the EPIC/EPRU study and the UCLA study show racial stratification in both directions. That is, we’re seeing both “white flight” and “minority flight." Several comments I'’ve seen therefore conclude that we’re attacking Latino and African American students for choosing non-diverse schools. Speaking for myself, I would never condemn a parent for making such a choice. If a parent perceives his or her best schooling option to be a segregated school, I would certainly hope that the segregation isn'’t the reason for that conclusion. But ultimately I’m not in a position to question any parent’s choice. I should note that surveys consistently show that parents of all races state a preference for integrated schools, all else being equal. So what I do question are state policies that fail to create incentives for schools, including charter schools, to have that diversity.
Ultimately, I hope those who criticized the UCLA report and who might be tempted to criticize the new EPIC/EPRU report take a step back and consider the long-term benefits to the charter movement if it embraces reforms designed to create greater school-level diversity. Yes, these reports do raise serious concerns about the current situation, but they aren'’t calling for charters to be abandoned. They are calling for meaningful reflection and change so that these schools can help move the country toward its ideals.
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