Research Roundup, Feb 2018: More data on charters and school re-segregation

Two new studies came out last month that add to a growing body of literature suggesting that charter schools contribute to school resegregation. The first looks at the impact of school choice policies and zoning changes in New Castle County, Delaware. In case you are not aware, the school segregation story in DE is somewhat unique. Here’s the background –

  • Schools in New Castle County were desegregated via court order in 1975 and (as in so many places) the schools were released from their desegregation order in 1995.
  • And, there’s an interesting nuance to story: Although the 1974 Milliken decision banned integration across districts lines, it only did so in cases where the courts ruled that the existing segregation was “de facto” (i.e., based, supposedly, on individual choices) NOT in cases were segregation was “de jure” (i.e., a function of explicitly discriminatory policy).
  • In the DE case that led to the 1975 order (Evans v. Buchanan), segregation was ruled “de jure,” so Milliken didn’t apply. The result was “the nation’s first multi-district, city-suburban busing program,” and one that was widely regarded as successful.
  • Among many massive changes, New Castle County consolidated 11 districts down to 4, which were intentionally designed to balance the county’s demographic mix.
  • In 1996, immediately after the court order was lifted, the DE legislature passed two laws – one established charter schools in the state, the other allowed school choice via open enrollment across public districts. The county later shifted back towards residential-based attendance zones and expanded to 5 districts.

The article tries to untangle the mix of factors that contributed to resegregation after the order was lifted, including – the school choice and charter bills from 1996 as well as changes in district attendance zones and in so-called “de facto” residential demographics. It uses a large data set, looking at changes in five districts across 26 years (1987-2013). The authors found “a significant contribution of charters to the overall pattern of segregation and of growing segregation.” Here are a few interesting highlights:

  • “Reflecting the growing percentage of black students and the decreasing overall percentage of white students over the 26 years, there has been a steady decline in the level of exposure of black to white students, from 69% white in the typical black student’s school to 41%, although the rate of decline slowed around 2006.”
  • “All but a few of the 16 charter schools are either overwhelmingly white or overwhelmingly black; half of charters are above 80% black. By contrast only 5% of the traditional (noncharter) schools are above 80% black. In 1995-96, before the charters emerged, none of the traditional public schools were majority black.”

The paper is careful to note that “charter schools’ emergence certainly played a role [in resegregation], but there was no single policy cause,” also citing the open-enrollment law and the transition back towards neighborhood-based student assignment. Nonetheless, the research finds ultimately that “segregation was increasing modestly in the years prior to 1996, but the 1996 policy changes significantly accelerated the rate of segregation. Thus it is a reasonable to infer a causal relationship.”

Another study, released by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, has a much more straightforward finding: charter schools are driving segregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools (full text). There’s an important point to highlight here – the report is doing more than just saying charters are highly segregated; it’s saying that charters are making traditional public schools more segregated. This happens in a few ways:

  • Charters in Charlotte provide an out for white and Asian students
    • Unlike the example from DE, charters in Charlotte served a “racially isolated white” population. The report notes that “their departure to the charters leaves fewer middle class white and Asian students in the traditional school, thereby contributing to more segregated schools in both sectors.”
  • Charters fueled political activism against school diversity. This part was pretty interesting. Here are the key points-
    • When charters were created in NC, they were subject to existing desegregation orders and they were required to “reasonably reflect” the racial composition of their surrounding area.
    • After a 1998 lawsuit, “the North Carolina Board of Education agreed not to enforce the diversity requirements.” In 2002, Charlotte’s desegregation order was lifted and, like DE, Charlotte transitioned back to neighborhood-based student assignment. Then, to make the state more competitive for Race to the Top money, the state lifted its charter cap in 2011, leading to a proliferation of charters in Raleigh and Charlotte.  
    • By 2016, Charlotte was the most racially segregated school system in NC.
    • To try to stem school resegregation, policy makers actually pursued student assignment changes for the 2017-2018 school year; however, the threat of charters limited their efforts. The report notes that “if policy makers believe too ambitious a plan will trigger flight to charters, they are likely to scale back their efforts to expand equity through creating more diverse schools.” Indeed, after “months of heated public hearings,” the board approved a paltry new assignment plan that affects less than 5% of the district’s students.

As a result, the report concludes that “the proliferation of charters in Mecklenburg County served as grist for the political activism of suburban parents who threatened a middle-class exodus from CMS to the charter sector if new assignment boundaries did not honor their current neighborhood school assignments. These threats indirectly undermined policy actors’ initial willingness to act boldly and decisively in revamping pupil assignments to curb segregation.”

So, some troubling findings across both studies, not only because of the clear association between charters and segregation in both places, but also because of the multiple ways that charters stand in the way of school diversity: by serving isolated populations of black (DE) and white (NC) students and even by preventing pro-diversity school policy in NC. In this way, these studies join research from Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Minneapolis-St. Paul (to name just a few!). All have important nuances specific to their local context, and all find that charter schools accelerate school re-segregation

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