Friday, August 13, 2010

Charter Schools and Integration

Martha Minow

After decades of struggles over the legality and political viability publicly-funded vouchers to pay for private, including religious, schooling, the contemporary school reform embracing parental choice is charter schools. As the states (and some cities) authorize the distribution of public funds to groups of teachers, parents, community members, nonprofit organizations or businesses to design and run schools, the hope of better schooling is coupled with the possibility of self-segregation. Studies indicate that charter schools generate either more or less racial and ethnic diversity than neighborhood schools.

Nationwide, children of color are enrolled in charter schools disproportionately to their percentage in the student population, but largely because of the higher concentration of charter schools in urban areas. Charter schools in Arizona are disproportionately composed of white students while increasing numbers of racially separate schools in Michigan can be traced to the rise of charter schools. Hispanic parents disproportionately select thematic charter schools, and schools with specialized curricular programs in a particular language or cultural heritage appeal to distinct communities such as Somali immigrants, Native Hawai'ians, African-Americans, or Hispanics.

Racially-mixed enrollments would be more likely if charter schools bridged districts and crossed lines between cities and suburbs or between towns and rural communities.

The federal Department of Education encourages the development of single-sex schools with extra flexibility on this score for charter schools. Charter schools avoid the justification and evaluation requirements applied to traditional schools seeking single-sex programs (as long as the charter schools is not vocational and not part of a large collection of schools).

Charter schools with special missions to serve students with disabilities have grown up alongside charter schools that counsel out students with disabilities, such as autism or learning disability--producing more separation between students with and without disabilities in charter schools nation wide.

Charter schools draw talented and motivated people into the business of teaching and engage parents, whose involvement is key to effective schooling. But special-identity schools can produce self-segregation by race, ethnicity, gender, disability status...though, to be frank, charter schools may simply equalize the ability of groups other than well-off whites to self-segregate. More data on the effects of school choice on school composition and achievement would be helpful to have. But even without more information, states and localities authorizing charter schools should ask whether to promote mixing students across lines of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, and socio-economic class, whether limit the use of public funds in schools that implicitly steer students into relatively homogeneous student bodies. Without such elements, charter school regimes walk away from the task of social integration--and if this country cares about that task, we'll need institutions other than schools to undertake it.

Martha Minow is Dean and Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law, Harvard Law School. Her most recent book is In Brown's Wake: Legacies of America's Educational Landmark (Oxford University Press 2010)

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