NC charter schools failing to deliver on diversity promise

Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham
Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham hlynch@newsobserver.com

The State Board of Education’s recent decision to reject the Department of Public Instruction’s annual report on charter schools as “too negative” should be sufficient confirmation that some of North Carolina’s charter school backers are more interested in promoting a segregative program than they are in ensuring that all students have equal access to a sound basic education.

The report accurately documents that charter schools are hypersegregated by race and income and disproportionately serve white middle-class children.

For those still unconvinced, the board’s subsequent policy change allowing charters less than five years old to continue to operate even though they have failed to meet minimum basic standards for student achievement further undercuts the arguments of proponents of the “market theory” for public education.

As the 2015 study by Duke researchers Helen Ladd, Charles Clotfelter and John Holbein observed, “A defining characteristic of charter schools is that they introduce a strong market element into public education.” They note that the private market credo is that “the firms that are well-run and that satisfy consumer preferences will tend to expand or be replicated while those that are less successful – perhaps because they are not well-managed or because they misjudged the nature of the demand – will not attract and keep customers and consequently have to go out of business.”

Apparently that justification for charter schools no longer applies. The state BOE’s commitment to privatization abandons meaningful oversight of charter schools. It callously ignores the effect of privatization on the vast majority of children who continue to attend underfunded traditional public schools and ignores the persistent and pernicious segregation of students of color, lower wealth students and exceptional children.

We shouldn’t accept this. We should instead demand that the state uphold and enforce the law.

Already codified

The legislature has already recognized the importance of diversity in charter schools and has codified it in the charter legislation, which makes the commitment to such diversity mandatory. “Within one year after the charter school begins operation, the charter school shall make efforts for the population of the school to reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the general population residing within the local school administrative unit in which the school is located.” However, as the DPI report expressly recognized, the state has never obligated itself to honor that mandate in any way, noting, “There is no mechanism by which schools can guarantee racial and ethnic balance … nor is there an official consequence for not achieving it.”

The problem is not that the draft report is too negative. The problem is the state’s failure to address the creation of 21st century publically funded segregation academies. If the state were committed to racially and economically diverse quality education, there are proven policies that could implement the statutory provision.

Proven policies

The state should approve only charters that locate in an area accessible to parents of different incomes and races, target underrepresented populations, provide transportation and free-or-reduced-price lunch, use a weighted lottery that considers family income or geography to ensure diverse enrollment and promote a school culture that embraces diversity in its pedagogy, programs and teacher training to ensure that different cultures and backgrounds are included and respected.

The Duke study provides important context for the charter school movement. It notes that when charter school legislation was first introduced in North Carolina in the 1990s, advocates for poor and minority students – likely aware of how the withdrawal of support from traditional public schools typically disadvantages students of color – opposed it. “This opposition,” the report notes “may have reflected the state’s historical experience with school choice during the 1960s when ‘freedom academies’ were established to provide a way for white students to avoid integrated schools.”

The guidance of the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education on diversity in K-12 schools recognizes that, “Providing students with diverse, inclusive educational opportunities from an early age is crucial to achieving the nation’s educational and civic goals.”

Racial and socioeconomic diversity was one of the great promises of charter schools. By drawing students from all across a community, these schools would be able to transcend the patterns of residential segregation that created racial isolation in traditional public schools. With committed leadership, the state could easily adopt and implement charter school policies that fulfill that promise.

Elizabeth Haddix is senior staff attorney and Mark Dorosin is managing attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights.