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Does school choice lead to resegregation?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 24, 2010 - A new report on the racial makeup of enrollment in the nation's charter schools says two goals seem to be colliding: deregulation and desegregation.

The research conducted by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA says that as more students attend classes in charter schools, which are funded by tax dollars but separate from traditional school districts, the ideal of integration too often has been ignored.

As a result, in the words of Gary Orfield, co-director of the project, "The charter school movement has been a major political success, but it has been a civil rights failure."

Orfield, who wrote the foreword to the report --  "Choice Without Equity," which was released earlier this month -- called on the Obama administration to make sure that as it pushes for expansion of charters, civil rights considerations are not overlooked.

"I'm sure that a president who benefited from integrated schools and colleges and is a proud follower of Martin Luther King would not want to use federal funds to further accelerate resegregation of students of color or perpetuate inferior schools for those same students," Orfield wrote.

"Many parents trapped in weak schools want a choice. We need to make certain that the choices are good ones, that they are fairly available to all, and that they provide, as much as possible, real paths into the mainstream of American society."

But Orfield and the report's conclusions have been disputed by charter school advocates, who say the researchers at the CRP reached their conclusions by misusing the data.

Specifically, according to Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools,  the numbers used to measure how well charter classrooms are integrated unfairly compare charter school demographics to those of entire metropolitan area school systems.

The result, Smith wrote on the alliance's website is "a remarkably shoddy job."

"Where we brim with pride at the million or so minority parents who choose to send their kids to charter schools," Smith said, "the CRP -- well, it pretty much ignores them. Where we know high-quality charter schools are addressing a profound civil rights issue -- the denial of educational opportunity -- the CRP sees them as part of the problem."




One area in which the CRP report most heavily criticizes the efforts of many charter schools is the claim that they are exchanging more choice for parents and students for more segregated classrooms.

"We know that choice programs can either offer quality educational options with racially and economically diverse schooling to children who otherwise have few opportunities," Orfield says in his foreword, "or choice programs can actually increase stratification and inequality depending on how they are designed."

Among the many pages of statistics in the report, some about the St. Louis area stand out. Missouri law allows charters only in the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City. The 18 charter schools in the city of St. Louis enroll about 8,200 students, or 2 percent of the total enrollment of the entire metropolitan area, which includes school districts in the suburbs. (The latest state figures show St. Louis public school enrollment as 26,108.)

Of the population of charter school students, in the 2007-2008 school year, 87 percent was black and 9 percent was white, compared with 27 percent black and 69 percent white enrollment in the area's traditional public schools. (In comparison, 81 percent of students in the St. Louis public schools are black.)

Two other telling statistics: In the St. Louis area, 83 percent of the charter school students were in schools that were between 90 and 100 percent minority, compared with 13 percent of the students in public schools.

Orfield, who was active in shaping and analyzing the St. Louis area desegregation program in the 1980s, said in an interview that he realizes charter schools are in areas with a large minority student population, so he doesn't necessarily expect the racial makeup to be the same as that of the traditional public schools in the metropolitan area as a whole.

But, he says, he wants to make sure that stronger efforts are made to ensure that charter schools don't contribute to the resegregation of classrooms.

"There are a lot of good people in charge of charter schools," Orfield added. "I just don't think this issue has been raised for them.

"We're not saying every charter school needs to be diverse. We are saying there should be policies that say they should be diverse."

He also says it is somewhat ironic that a movement like charter schools, which began as a way to provide more choice for parents who want alternatives for their children's education, should wind up being less integrated than many of the public schools they are competing with.

"Our view is that schools of choice that are receiving public funds should be subject to the same civil rights laws and goals," he said. "There is no reason to favor one form of choice over another."

In particular, Orfield would like to see choice programs concentrate more on magnet schools, which he says have been shown to be more diverse and more successful academically, than on the expansion of charters.

"There's lots of research, but no data, to show that charter schools are superior," he said, "so if they are not superior but are more segregated and don't have civil rights policies, why not change things around so there are more elements of choice? This seems like a no-brainer to me."

And if charters are the choice of government officials, he said, they need to pay more attention to the racial makeup of the classroom.

"The civil rights laws haven't been repealed," Orfield said, "and the constitution hasn't been changed. The laws are still there. There are people in the Obama administration who are serious about this. If they are going to pump more money into the system and encourage states to have more charter schools, they ought to attach serious civil rights requirements."




Officials with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had no comment on the CRP report. But Cheri Shannon, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, noted that the geographical limits placed on charter schools in the state inevitably lead to the racial separation that the report cites.

"You can't cross district boundaries," she said. "It's only Kansas City and St. Louis, so that is going to paint a very skewed picture of the school populations."

Shannon noted that because charter schools are required to have open enrollment, they have no say over the makeup of their student bodies.

"We cannot discriminate on the basis of race, so our applications are neutral when it comes to race, to income or anything else," she said.

"Schools don't make a conscious effort to recruit all white kids or all black kids or all Hispanic children or all Asian children. I don't know how you get around that, because you'd be in violation of the law."

Her first reaction when she read the CRP report, Shannon said, was that as far as the charter schools in Missouri are concerned, the results are purely a result of demographics. She said that efforts to expand charters in the state are concentrating on removing the geographic restrictions, so families anywhere can take advantage of the charter option.

"Missouri is the only state that has geographical caps," she said. "Lots of them have numerical caps -- in New York, for example, there can be only 100 charter schools and that's it, but they can be anywhere."

Earl Simms, state director for the Children's Education Council of Missouri, also pointed out that as the law is written, charter schools in the state have no discretion over who enrolls; instead, the student body is determined by lottery.

His group is working for expansion of charters in the state, to give parents more options over where to send their children. He said that if charters are expanded, the racial makeup of each school is likely to become more diverse.

"We're supporting charter expansion in order to give parents another option for their child," Simms said. "If they feel a charter better for their child, great. If they feel that traditional schools are better for their child, that's great too."

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