Charter schools increase segregation – that’s the flawed conclusion of a recent National Bureau of Economic Research report by three Duke University Professors: Helen Ladd, Charles Clotfelter and John Holbein.
The report examines the evolution of charter schools in North Carolina between 1999 and 2012 “through the lens of a market model.” The authors determined that “[c]harter schools in North Carolina are increasingly serving the interests of relatively able white students in racially imbalanced schools.”
Major news outlets, including the Washington Post, have publicized the study. What hasn’t been mentioned are the study’s major weaknesses, which, when taken together, cast a doubt on the validity of its conclusions.
The authors say charter school growth is inextricably linked to development of a strong market impulse. Open markets where parents and providers can respond to changing conditions are an important factor in charter school growth.
Despite the author’s assertions, the claim of a strong market doesn’t really square with reality. Up until 2010, North Carolina capped the number of charter schools at 100. By all accounts, 100 was an artificial number, chosen simply because it allowed for each county in North Carolina to have one charter school.
How is a market model an effective tool for analysis when the entity that approves charter schools is a governmental body with its own interests at stake? The State Board of Education (SBE), which controls the approval, location and number of charters, sees them as competitors, and acts accordingly. The market model isn’t an effective tool for analysis when such a body runs the show.
The market model has other problems. The playing field for charter and public schools is supposed to be level. But is it, when NC charter schools must on average use 30 percent of their operating budget for facility costs? Is the playing field level when public schools shift around finances to limit the local average daily membership (ADM) funding they are required to share with local charter schools? These are realities that choke markets and keep them from flourishing.
It’s true current law allows eligible charter schools to expand enrollment by up to 20 percent without state approval. But it’s also true that one body outside the market – the State Board of Education –controls the number and type of schools that will be built.
The authors analyze data from 1999 to 2012. However, for 11 of the 13 years, a cap limited the number of charter schools that could be built. Only during two years (2011, 2012) is there no cap on the supply of charter schools. Is it accurate to say during this time period charter school growth has been propelled by market forces?
The authors claim that the introduction of charters and a market model of education has resulted in winners and losers, to the detriment of students and our communities. The Duke professors contend, “Many white parents are using charter schools, at least in part, to avoid more racially diverse traditional public schools.” That’s a big claim – with no real evidence. Still the authors don’t walk back from it. The authors refer to the early history between vouchers and segregation in North Carolina and apparently are willing to extrapolate those sentiments – without evidence – far into the future. It’s a dangerous claim.
Ladd, Clotfelter and Holbein assert that the racial composition of charter schools is much different than that found in traditional schools. The authors claim that the composition of charter schools has historically been racially imbalanced, with schools either being predominantly white (less than 20 percent nonwhite) or predominantly minority (more than 80 percent nonwhite). They also assert that the share of minority students in charter schools has declined. These results are much different than racial composition found in traditional public schools and far less diverse than in traditional public schools.
To substantiate racial imbalance claims the authors compare charter schools and traditional student populations for race for 1998 and 2014. However, it’s wrong to compare charter school enrollment to the average enrollment, statewide. Public schools can vary significantly from community to community. Since charter schools are required to mirror the composition of their local communities, a more valid comparison would be to compare local charter school enrollment to their local traditional public school counterparts. While the authors did attempt to satisfy these concerns by controlling variables and making comparisons as close as possible, in my view they fell short.
Do such comparisons matter? Yes – significantly. That is because many charter school students already attend school in intensely segregated settings.
In 2009, researchers at RAND focused on segregation in five major metropolitan areas: Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and San Diego. They followed students from traditional public schools to charter schools and found “surprisingly little effect on racial distributions across sites.” More specifically, “Across 21 comparisons (seven sites with three racial groups each—national, state and metro areas) we find only two cases in which the average difference between the sending traditional public school and the receiving charter school is greater than 10 percentage points in the concentration of the transferring student’s race.”
In my view, Ladd, Clotfelter and Holbein obscure the differences in school-level demographics among charter and traditional public schools. Such comparisons also ignore the fact that intentional placement of charter schools in urban, disadvantaged areas almost guarantees that their populations will be larger, more disadvantaged and likely more segregated than the population of statewide traditional public school averages.
However, let’s not get lost in the weeds. This is merely the framework on which the authors build their larger claim: White parents are using the charter schools at least in part to avoid the more racially diverse traditional public schools. It’s a bold statement that lacks real evidence (How do you measure motivation?) and is based on a questionable assumption.
Are the public schools more racially diverse? Of course, on a statewide aggregate basis the public schools are more diverse. But public schools are local entities that serve local – not statewide – communities. Public schools mirror the composition of local communities, which may frequently be dominated by one race and not reflect the composition of a statewide population.
Are charter schools merely a vehicle for segregation? The fact is, the percent of black students in public charter schools is actually higher than black enrollment in traditional public schools. According to the North Carolina Office of Charter schools 2015 Executive Report, black students comprised about 30 percent of charter school enrollment and 26 percent of traditional public school enrollment. Since the cap was lifted in 2011, black student population in charter schools has increased 20 percent while the percentage of white students in charter schools has increased 21 percent. Rapid segregation? Hardly.
It should be noted that charter schools are statutorily required to mirror the composition of the surrounding local communities. We also need to remember that the larger, more popular charters have waiting lists. As such they are required to admit students via a lottery. This raises an interesting point: How can schools reflect the surrounding community when admission is determined by ping-pong balls? That’s something to consider.
If charter schools are indeed vehicles that propel segregation among niche markets, wouldn’t students and parents be the first to come face-to-face with that message? Then what explains the high levels of support for charter schools and school choice among minorities? What explains the tremendous growth among charter schools and the long waiting lists? Charter schools are growing because they provide quality educational opportunities. Visit a charter school. More than likely you’ll find happy and engaged students, and satisfied parents.
Are charter schools perfect? Of course not. However, they work, because they meet a need and respond to a truth that the public schools often ignore: students learn differently. The important question is whether parents will continue to have the freedom to choose where to educate their children, or whether that option will be limited by what others perceive as more desirable social goals. Only time will tell.