New Research: Charter Schools and Segregation in New Orleans

Released last week, a policy brief from the Education Research Alliance looks at the effect of charter expansion on school segregation in New Orleans. Strangely, the brief uses peripheral findings to sort of dilute its central finding: overall, segregation by race increased. And, the authors note that even those more positive findings (i.e., places where segregation decreased) were likely due to not charter expansion but to other unrelated events. I’ll explain what I mean.

The report made a number of comparisons – first, comparing the racial composition of pre-Katrina New Orleans’ (NO) schools (‘02-’05) to post-Katrina/charterized schools (‘12-’14); then, they compared changes in NO to changes in other large, high-poverty Louisiana districts AND changes in urban districts across the country with a similar demographic profile. If segregation increased in NO more so than in these comparison districts, that suggests the city’s charter experiment has led to an increase segregation. They used multiple measures of segregation – unevenness and isolation. And, they looked at segregation based on common (race, SES) and uncommon (ELL & Special Education status, student achievement) student groupings.

The results for race are not encouraging. They found some evidence that segregation of black students in elementary schools did not increase in NO as much as it did in the comparison districts. But, they found that segregation increased at a greater rate for:

  • Black students in high school
  • Hispanic students in elementary school
  • Hispanic students in high school

There was “no discernible effect” for white students at the elementary school and high school levels. Results for SES weren’t great either – it was a wash at the elementary school level and segregation increased above comparison districts at the high school level.

This study joins a growing body of research finding that school choice policies, on the whole, have a negative effect on school segregation.

In addition to looking at race and SES, the report also measures changes in segregation of ELL students, Special Education students, students in the bottom 20% of ELA achievement and students in the top 20%. For each of these groups, there’s basically no effect either way at the elementary school level. In high schools, segregation in NO has increased for ELLs, but (here’s the positive findings) it has decreased for Special Education students, and students in the top 20% and bottom 20% of ELA achievement levels. I can see how it might be useful to examine other forms of segregation, but obviously: segregation is about race. You can apply the term to other student subgroups and slice things up in a way to find different results. Ultimately, if it’s not about race, then it misses the point.

And, as the authors note, the decreases in school segregation were likely due to factors unrelated to charter expansion. For example, after Katrina, the number of selective admissions high schools in NO decreased, likely leading to positive changes in segregation of students by achievement levels. In addition, a lot of students left the district after Katrina, changing its racial composition from 92% black (before Katrina) to 85% (after).

Taken together, the results lead the authors to conclude that “reforms have not had any clear or consistent effect on segregation for the majority of groups.” Well, yeah – I guess that’s true, but only if you add a bunch of different student groups in the mix. You could slice it up a lot of different ways, get creative with it, come up with a measure of segregation for all kinds of groupings. But, again: segregation is about race. People didn’t riot about schools being integrated according to achievement levels. And, based on the data here, there is a “clear and consistent” pattern related to race – segregation increased post-Katrina.

The last words of the brief are flat and hopeless: “segregation will likely remain an issue for New Orleans and other cities around the country for years to come.” This makes it sound like segregation is something that’s being done to us, helplessly. It’s not. Instead, it’s the result of deliberate political decisions played out over more than a century of American public education. It’s aided by acceptance of policies – like charter expansion – that either don’t help or that make things worse, as proven by this brief. When there’s political will to implement policies that actively push against school segregation, then there’s been dramatic (but always contested) progress.

3 thoughts on “New Research: Charter Schools and Segregation in New Orleans

  1. really loving all of your analyses of these articles! thank you for this!

    your last graf was IT. “… This makes it sound like segregation is something that’s being done to us, helplessly. It’s not. Instead, it’s the result of deliberate political decisions played out over more than a century of American public education. It’s aided by acceptance of policies – like charter expansion – that either don’t help or that make things worse, as proven by this brief. When there’s political will to implement policies that actively push against school segregation, then there’s been dramatic (but always contested) progress.”

    Segregation is not something done to us. It is absolutely something WE DO. With decisions we make around our elected, with choices we make for our children’s schools… and certainly by suffocating the conversation of segregation with coded good/bad school narratives…

    Like

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