President Obama's education initiatives include major incentives for creating more charter schools. Policymakers at all levels of government are all currently touting charters as a big fix for our nation's troubled schools and California has made one of the deepest commitments to
charters. Before further expansion, however, Californians need to take a long look at some hard numbers.
There are, of course, some excellent and famous charter schools. In California, as well as nationwide, however, disturbing trends are emerging in charter schools where intense segregation is upending student body diversity and ignoring civil rights. Further, the lack of charter school data documenting the enrollment of English Language Learners makes it very difficult to know whether California's charter schools are equitably serving these students.
Charter schools stratify students by race, class and possibly language, and are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the country, according to a report issued by the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA. Because separate is still fundamentally unequal, and because integrated schools prepare all students to live and work in our extremely diverse state, charter school stratification matters.
The number of California students in charter schools has more than doubled from 2000-01 to 2007-08. By 2007-08, charter students accounted for 4.1 percent of all public school students in the state, higher than the national share. California has changed its law to permit rapid expansion of the state's charter sector, though the great majority of students will surely remain in regular public schools.
As in charter schools across the West and some Southern states, white students are over-represented in California's charters. More than half of California's public school students are Latino but only 41% of charter's students. And at the same time, in comparison to the state's traditional public schools, where whites comprise 29% of the student population, 38% of charter school students are white. In other words, white students are almost half again as likely to be in charter schools. White charter school students are also more likely to attend intensely segregated white schools with 0-10% nonwhites. These figures suggest that some California charters serve as havens of white flight from traditional public schools.
There's more. In California, with its burgeoning immigrant population, it's alarming to find that almost no federal data exists on English Language Learner (ELL) enrollment in California charter schools. Federal data on charter schools in California, the largest gateway for Latino and Asian immigrants, report just seven ELL students attending its state charter programs, which is obviously wrong. Without accurate enrollment information, we have no way of knowing how well charters are serving English Language Learners who constitute about a tenth of U.S. students.
Nationally as well as statewide, a strong lobby that claims educational superiority for charter schools is drowning out the evidence: There is very little data reported on graduation rates - a vital goal of any school - and research shows no significant academic advantage. A massive Stanford study found no overall evidence of the superiority of charters. A recent analysis by the Los Angeles Times found that magnet school students in LAUSD outperformed both charter and regular public school peers on statewide tests. Some charters outperform other public schools in the district, but many also performed worse and charters are doubtless serving students who differ in some significant ways. Adding to the confusion, the state does not currently monitor how many students exit charter programs prematurely - an important measure of educational support-since pushing out low scoring students would make the schools look more successful in reported average test scores.
In spite of these troubling findings, charter schools have proven to be the darling of the Obama Administration, prominently featured in the "Race to the Top," a competitive funding program that rewards financially strapped states with points on getting more stimulus funds
for raising or eliminating caps on establishing charter schools. California, like other states, has joined in the sprint to secure its share through an expansion of its charter school program, already the largest in the entire nation.
Congress has steadily increased funding for charter schools over the last two budget cycles. Magnet schools, which adhere more to federal civil rights guidelines and often have more effective equity policies, experienced a smaller funding boost after several years of flat or
decreased allocations. Even with the 10% increase this year, magnet schools still receive about a third of charter school funding levels.
Before rushing ahead, we need to ensure that charter schools, which are publicly funded, are fairly available to students of all racial, socioeconomic and linguistic backgrounds. We need better data, better parent information, diversity policies, and transportation to get students to the schools.
The benefits of integration in education for all students - regardless of ethnicity or race - are clear in decades of evidence, and have been endorsed by the Supreme Court as compelling goals for K-12 schools. Both President Obama and the California State Board of Education must enforce civil rights policies. And they should also fairly consider other school choice options -- like magnet schools -- instead of exclusively focusing on charters. California confronts massive educational needs and extremely unequal schools. It should invest its scarce resources where they make the most difference in expanding opportunity for all students.
Education Professor Gary Orfield is co-director of The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA which has issued the report, "Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards."