Charter Schools: Resegregating America?

Are charter schools helping to resegregate public schools? A just-released study states flatly that they are.

Are charter schools helping to resegregate public schools? A just-released study states flatly that they are. The Washington Post reports that:

“Seven out of 10 black charter school students are on campuses with extremely few white students, according to a new study of enrollment trends that shows the independent public schools are less racially diverse than their traditional counterparts.

“The findings from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, which are being released Thursday, reflect the proliferation of charter schools in the District of Columbia and other major cities with struggling school systems and high minority populations.

“To the authors of the study, the findings point to a civil rights issue: ‘As the country continues moving steadily toward greater segregation and inequality of education for students of color in schools with lower achievement and graduation rates,’ the study concludes, ‘the rapid growth of charter schools has been expanding a sector that is even more segregated than the public schools.’”

That’s one side of the story. The Economist magazine has the other side:

“In plain English, there are a lot of black kids in charter schools. This is because charter schools tend to get set up in neighborhoods where the public schools are terrible, such as south-eastern Washington DC or the rougher parts of New Orleans. These neighborhoods are disproportionately African-American. Charter schools are popular with poor black parents because their other choices are so awful. There are very few charter schools in rich white suburbs with nice public schools, because there is no call for them.

“The important question about charter schools is: do they give kids a better education than they would otherwise have received? The answer is yes. Nothing else matters.”

It’s true—charter schools are popular because many public schools are awful. And charter schools might be a welcome change if they can prove themselves uniformly better at academics than ordinary public schools. But charter schools have not done that yet. So posing the issue as a tradeoff–resegregation in exchange for decent schools–doesn't cut it.

And the schisms that charters offer are not just racial. Charter schools are being set up for girls, boys, liberals, conservatives – any which way you want to slice the American pie.

Charter schools are also being twisted into almost-but-not-quite religious academies. There is a big debate among conservative Christians right now. Should they send their kids to “Christian” charter schools or stick with private and home schools? One private Christian school in Florida has an answer. It’s closing its doors and reopening as a charter school. Same leadership, same staff, same building—but the Bibles and crucifixes will be removed. 

Charter schools hold out great hope as agents of reform. There are excellent charter schools, and perhaps they can lead some of our floundering school systems to better days. But that bright promise remains theoretical when you look at charter schools overall.

At the same time, it’s pretty clear that charter schools are helping to divide the country racially, religiously, and socially. Resegregation is a a tough problem with many causes. But unless the reform laws being passed right now address the resegregation issue, charter schools will simply be remembered as a force tore this country apart.

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More