The growth of charter schools has promoted segregation both in California and nationwide, increasing the odds that black, Latino and white students will attend class with fewer children who look different from themselves, according to two new studies.
Charter school advocates contend that the researchers' presumptions about racial separation are out of date. They said parents -- including low-income minority parents -- are turning to charters for a quality education that traditional schools have not provided.
Charters are independently managed public schools that are exempt from some rules that govern traditional schools. About 2.5% of the nation's students attend charters -- a threefold increase over seven years. The Los Angeles Unified School District has more charters -- enrolling about 9% of district students -- than any school system in the country.
The trend toward segregation was especially notable for African American students. Nationally, 70% of black charter students attend schools where at least 90% of students are minorities. That's double the figure for traditional public schools. The typical black charter-school student attends a campus where nearly three in four students also are black, researchers with the Civil Rights Project at UCLA said Thursday.
The other researchers also focused on economic segregation, looking at private companies that manage schools, in most cases charters. The enrollments at most of these campuses exacerbated income extremes, they concluded. Charters tended to serve higher-income students or lower-income students. Charters also were likely to serve fewer disabled students and fewer English learners. This report, soon to be officially released, was developed by education policy centers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Arizona State University.
Both research teams, using somewhat different methods and data, questioned the direction of the Obama administration, which has pushed states to authorize more charter schools as a condition for receiving funding through "Race to the Top" grants. That position has proved to be powerful leverage as states struggle with decreased funding.
"We don't want the Race to the Top to become a race to the past," said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, alluding to the era of enforced segregation.
Orfield's UCLA team previously documented how court decisions since 1991 had gradually eroded the halting progress in integration. Segregation remains a marker for inequality, just as it was in the 1950s, he said.
But nuances underlie the data. Locally based ICEF Public Schools grew out of an after-school and summer program in a predominantly black neighborhood. Its early families included many middle-class blacks, many of whom sent their children to parochial or other private schools. ICEF brought them into or back to public education.
Word of mouth spread, and the organization continued to serve virtually all-black enrollments -- even as Latino families increased in the neighborhood and as ICEF expanded beyond predominantly black enclaves.
Parent Kawana Midgette, a human resources specialist, considers the black enrollment a bonus at View Park Preparatory Accelerated Charter Middle School; it helps instill strong engagement with black culture and history, she said. But her daughter is at ICEF for the academic rigor: College is mandatory for the eighth-grader, Midgette said.
ICEF's ongoing evolution now includes two schools with Latino majorities, said founder and Chief Executive Mike Piscal. "We became a brand among African Americans as the place to go, but we want to be open to all Angelenos."
Integrating with white students, he added, is not an option in the areas he serves.
L.A. Unified also includes charters with high white enrollments; about half were traditional schools that already had high white enrollments when they became charters.
Some charter organizations serve largely low-income Latino enrollments -- in neighborhoods where nearly all students match that description. Such charter organizations as the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools have, in effect, tried to make segregation irrelevant by offering a college-prep curriculum in small classes within small schools.
The school district itself has left behind integration as a primary goal. Its school construction program, for example, is aimed at returning students to their neighborhood schools rather than their being bused elsewhere. But segregation is exacerbated in the process.
Given a school district that is 9% white, segregated by income and race, and predominantly poor, school quality has to trump hard-to-achieve integration, said L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines.
"If charter schools are doing the job for the student, and it is a better job" than the traditional school, Cortines said, "I'm not as concerned about the racial isolation."
Orfield's team isn't ready to surrender on integration. He proposes expanding magnet schools, which are special programs designed to attract diverse enrollments and thus promote desegregation. Alternatively, he said, charters should be required -- and helped -- to promote diversity.