Monday, May 26, 2014

Are Charter Schools Contributing to Segregation?

The celebration of the 60th anniversary of Brown v Topeka has been tempered somewhat by the realization that U.S. schools are more segregated today than they were in the early 1950s. Apologists will argue that today there is a new ethnic group to consider, or that school segregation is really all about housing segregation, both of which are true. However, there is one source of school segregation that is only about schools and school choice.

Charter schools are racially, ethnically and socio-economically segregated and there are just no two ways about it. A particularly egregious form of statistical malpractice holds that charter schools are not segregated because 15% of the U.S. is African American and 15% of the charter school population is African American, or 18% of the U.S. population is Hispanic and 18% of the charter school population is Hispanic. Such comparisons ignore the fact that the 15% of the African American charter school population might be enrolled in charter schools that are 90% African American. To see what is happening in the charter schools system with regard to segregation, you have to look at individual schools in close proximity. There is significant research that has done just that. ( Casey D. Cobb & Gene V Glass, 1999; Erica Frankenberg, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, Jia Wang, 2011).

Unless anyone think that the old research is out of date and things are getting better, let's take a look at the contemporary scene. Consider Boulder County, Colorado, where I am writing this blog entry right now. It's graduation time and the public schools of Boulder have published the names of their graduates in the newspaper. Now Boulder County has within its boundaries three cities: Boulder (white and upper middle class), and Louisville & Lafayette (mixed white and Hispanic and middle to lower middle class). There are two charter schools, one in Louisville — Arapahoe Ridge — and one in Lafayette — Peak to Peak. The two cities in the eastern half of the county have virtually merged and the two charter schools are about 5 miles apart.

I scanned the list of graduates' names in the newspaper and kept a count of Hispanic surnames. Now, please don't write me and tell me that inferring Hispanic ethnicity from surnames is not 100% accurate or even 75% accurate. I know that; it's obvious. It's also obvious that the magnitude of differences I observed between Arapahoe Ridge and Peak to Peak are not going to be explained away by ambiguous surnames.

Percent Hispanic Surnamed
Graduates at Arapahoe Ridge
Percent Hispanic Surnamed
Graduates at Peak to Peak

Is this just an aberration? Is Boulder County somehow an outlier with respect to charter school segregation? I don't think so. School choice means many things, most of which I find undesirable. But one thing it means is unmistakable. School choice leads to school segregation.

Gene V Glass
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

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