Charter schools often promise to bring greater equity to education, but a new brief starts with the assumption that they fall short in delivery -- and provides recommendations to fix the alleged injustice.
"Charter schools tend to be more racially segregated than traditional public schools," said author and Penn State law professor Preston Green III, who sat on a board that considered charter-school applications in Pennsylvania. "What we tried to do is write ways to enable charter schools to promote desegregation rather exacerbate segregation."
The brief, "Chartering Equity: Using Charter School Legislation and Policy to Advance Educational Opportunity," from the University of Colorado's National Education Policy Center features recommendations from both Green and University of Wisconsin, Madison education professor Julie Mead on how states and school districts can ensure that charters are integrated and helpful to disadvantaged populations. It also includes statutes that states can use to help reach those goals.
Charter schools are publicly funded, but can be privately run, and often admit students via lottery. Charter schools advocates argue that educational opportunity should not depend on zip code, and that charter schools allow for educational innovation that eventually can trickle back into the traditional system.
Detractors, however, often assert that charters siphon resources from traditional public schools without equal compensation and that they don’t serve specific populations, such as special-education students, in proportion with their existence.
Either way, charter schools, championed by both the Obama administration and free-market entrepreneurs, are growing: This year, as they edge into their third decade of existence, charter schools serve a total of 5 percent of American public school students -- an increase of 200,000, or 13 percent, from the year before.
According to research released in 2010 by professor Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, 70 percent of black charter school students attend a school where the bulk of their peers are also minorities -- compared to 40 percent in traditional public schools.
Orfield's brother, Myron Orfield, a professor at the University of Minnesota who directs the Institute on Race & Poverty, studies charter segregation at a local level.
"I think that charters are an engine of racial segregation. They are more segregated than public schools and cause public schools to be more segregated than they otherwise would be," he said. According to a report he plans to release Friday, from 2010-2011 almost 90 percent of black charter-school students in the Twin Cities are in segregated schools -- a number that actually increased by 8 percentage points over the last decade.
A common problem, Green said, is that charter schools often do not comply with federal civil-rights statutes. According to Orfield, they are legally responsible to do so, but are rarely challenged. For example, previous Supreme Court cases found "single-race schools were intentional segregation," Orfield said. "But charter schools haven't been challenged in this way, because people don't have a picture of how big a part of urban education they are."
But Ursula Wright, interim president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, rejects the premise of the brief. "I believe that charter schools have had the type of success that we currently have, serving 2 million kids across the country with hundreds of thousands on waiting lists, because people do see that we offer in many instances a better alternative," she said. "I can't agree with their starting point. The demand speaks for itself."
She added that she's heard Orfield's studies aren't "gold standard."
The brief includes recommendations for charter authorizers -- groups that approve and deny applications to start charter schools -- as well as state legislatures and the federal government.
One suggestion is that charter school authorizers require that in addition to academic qualifications, charter-school applicants show how "the school will broaden, not replicate, existing opportunities for struggling populations." Applicants should provide evidence that their approaches address environmental circumstances such as local achievement gaps, the brief said, and charter authorizers should factor "equal educational opportunity" concerns into renewal standards.
The brief's authors said they hoped its publication would influence the debate. Connecticut is deciding whether to increase charter-school funding. Alabama and Mississippi are considering their first charter-school laws.
Mead and Green recommend that state legislatures explicitly state in their laws that charter schools aim to "enhance equitable educational outcomes for all students, particularly those who have historically struggled," and that "charter schools must comply with all federal laws."
They also proposed new federal regulations, to be considered in the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind: that federal charter-school funding be tied to advancing equal opportunity, and that states are required to collect data on recruitment, retention and discipline in charter schools.
But those recommendations, said Wright, might not be feasible. "To push a federal statute down assuming states are set up to get that level of data is a bit of an oversimplication," she said.