Over the course of the last two decades, charter schools have become a ubiquitous feature of the urban educational landscape. Their expansion is poised to continue under the Obama administration. According to the Center for Education Reform, forty states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws, and the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 1.4 million public school students, or 2.8 percent of the total, are currently being educated in charter schools. In New York State, the number of public charter schools has grown from five in 1999 to 141 in 2009. This September alone 21 new charter schools opened in New York City.
While charter schools appear to have strong support from the U.S. Secretary of Education, many state governors, big city mayors, and urban education leaders, they remain a highly contested educational policy. Each year, researchers produce reams of competing data about how the academic outcomes of students in charter schools compare to similar students in public schools, and ultimately, the results are inconclusive. The merits of charter schools have also been challenged in terms of their impact on race- and income-based school segregation. This becomes a tricky debate when the question of culturally-specific charter schools comes into play. What is not yet clear is how charter schools are serving the needs of our newest Americans: English language learner (ELL) children of immigrants.
Children in immigrant families are the fastest-growing sector of the school-age population in the United States today. Correspondingly, the number of ELL students has also risen dramatically in recent years. Between 1995-96 and 2005-06, the proportion of students in U.S. schools classified as ELL increased from 6.8 to 10.3 percent. Despite this massive population growth, remarkably few interventions have been designed with their needs in mind. In fact, there is evidence that ELLs may be systematically excluded from some of the newest educational innovations. Our recent analysis of New York State data showed that ELL students are severely underrepresented in charter schools across the state. While 7.4 percent of students in district public schools statewide were classified as ELL during the 2006-2007 academic year, they comprised only 2.1 percent of charter school enrollments. Moreover, sixty schools or 66 percent of all charter schools in New York State that year had no ELL students enrolled at all.
Disaggregating the data to the district level reveals alarming results as well. In New York City, for example, where fifty-seven charter schools were operating in 2006-2007, while 13.4 percent of students in the district's public schools were classified as ELL only 2.3 percent of students in charter schools were ELLs. Furthermore, our research revealed that the majority of ELLs served in New York City charter schools that year was in fact concentrated in a single school. Removing this one school from aggregate calculations lowers the 2006-2007 ELL charter school enrollment in New York City to a mere 1.5 percent.
Why the glaring mismatch between charter school enrollments and the growing English language learner population? Schools today are asked to meet increasingly rigorous standards while serving an ever more racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, and linguistically diverse student population. Many school administrators have limited or no experience working with ELL students. It's an open secret that others are plainly afraid that these students will bring down their school's academic performance and drain resources. Immigrant families may also be unfamiliar with charter schools and may be unaware of the possibility of participating in a charter school lottery.
There are a variety of ways to address the failure of charters to serve ELL students. First, policy-makers should establish clear guidelines and benchmarks for ELL enrollment in charter schools along with smart incentives and supports. If the school leadership believes that serving ELLs will jeopardize long-term viability and if they do not receive adequate resources to meet these students' needs, they have no motivation to reach out and encourage them to participate in school lotteries. A number of exemplary schools already exist, and they can serve as models of how to effectively serve ELL students.
Focusing on language development, creating a school culture of shared responsibility for ELL student progress, developing structures for collaboration among teachers, using student data to inform academic foci, and investing in efforts to engage families are only some of the strategies that schools have developed and adopted. Policy-makers and educators alike should seek out these schools as thought partners, mentors, and models whose practices can be customized to fit each school and student population. An arduous task lies ahead, but charter schools must take the steps necessary to embrace an ever more diverse student population and adapt to the challenges and opportunities of education in the twenty-first century.
Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj is a Ph. D. Candidate at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco is the Fisher Membership Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ & the Courtney Sale Ross University Professor of Globalization and Education at New York University. Their forthcoming book, Educating the Whole Child for the Whole World, will be published by the New York University Press in the spring.