History repeats itself. Unfortunately, so does irresponsible analysis. For the 20 or so years that I’ve been studying charter schools, the attacks on charters have morphed over time. Early on, it was said that charter schools were going to admit only the most advantaged students. When that clearly didn’t come to pass, the attack line shifted to assertions that charters were more racially segregated than other schools. A study in the early 2000s by Gary Orfield seemed to confirm that: It showed that racial concentration in charter schools was higher than in nearby district schools.
But when researchers Zimmer, Gill, and Booker took a closer look, they found that kids attending racially concentrated charter schools had come from equally racially concentrated district schools. It turned out, charters were simply locating in majority-minority low-income neighborhoods and serving the at-risk kids who live there. Los Angeles is about 80% Hispanic. New Orleans is more than 80% black. Charter schools that locate in those cities are trying to serve those students. This is not segregation; this is school founders doing exactly what policymakers hoped they would do (as required in most state charter laws): serve kids most in need of a better education.
Now, a new Associated Press story is resurrecting an attack that should have been laid to rest, with headlines asserting that charter schools “put growing numbers in racial isolation.” The AP repeats Orfield’s old methodological mistake by interpreting high rates of racial concentration as “causing” segregation. If students are simply moving from one all-black school to another, there is no impact on overall segregation of schools. But there likely is an increase in learning.
The article includes some titillating stats: Charters are more “racially isolated” than district-run schools, and racially isolated schools are more likely to have low test scores. I hope it comes as no surprise to the AP education reporters that poverty is well known to be highly correlated with low proficiency rates. But they do seem ignorant of the important fact that charter schools have a strong track record in overcoming the odds of high poverty. They also fail to consider that parents choose charters, rather than being forced to send their children there.