The intersection of race and education is one of the top social issues facing Americans, and it headlined the education conversation in the most recent Democratic debates. Whether it is discipline, achievement, postsecondary attainment, or access to high performing schools, the disparities students of color often experience in the education system are foul at best. Unfortunately, there are strong disagreements about how to fix the problem and blame is often assigned where it does not belong.
We see this starkly in the debate over charter schools. Evidence clearly demonstrates that, on average, students of color in urban charter schools acquire greater learning gains when compared with their peers in district schools. These public schools are helping close such achievement gaps. Critics, however, suggest that the results of charter schools have come at the expense of increasing segregation in urban schools, with more black and brown students in schools where nearly all their peers look like them.
A research report by the Urban Institute is making news for appearing to lend credence to this criticism. Despite cautions from the authors, the media has focused on the findings that charter schools slightly increase segregation within districts. However, the complete story is much more nuanced. The study finds that the increase in segregation varies across states and does not always increase because of charter schools. Most importantly, the authors show that increased segregation is only an effect within districts, and that when examined across districts, charter schools actually decrease segregation for some ethnic groups. The decreasing effect is even larger in the cities with a high number of districts within a metropolitan area, where segregation across districts has historic roots.
In any discussion on segregation, it is critical to clarify how exactly we are defining the term. As the authors point out, the segregation identified in the Urban Institute report is not the government sanctioned segregation of the era before Oliver Brown versus Board of Education, when students of color were forced to attend schools with little resources. Rather, the “segregation” we see in charter schools is the result of black and brown families having a choice about where to send their children to public school and seeking schools that best meets the needs of their children.
Taking agency away from families of color with few or no alternatives is more akin to the segregation of the past when parents had no options. Those who would take away charter schools to push school integration also overlook the reality that educational segregation is more heavily influenced by housing patterns and broader socioeconomic trends, such as the ability of affluent families to select private school options. A world without charter schools would not be a world with less segregation. It would simply be a world with far less opportunity for families of color.
While there is some evidence that students of color who are attending more integrated schools perform better, studies demonstrate that much of that academic improvement is tied to socioeconomic status. We know little about how these outcomes interact with other studies that suggest students of color perform better when they have at least one teacher of the same race, a situation that is more likely to occur in charter schools. A recent study conducted in North Carolina found that in charter schools, black students are nearly 50 percent more likely to have a black teacher than their district peers, while white students actually have an equal chance to have a white teacher across the district and charter sectors.
In a time when society simultaneously extols the value of diversity yet is actually becoming more racially isolated, we must think through how choice is exercised across the education system and the role that policy can play in ensuring equitable access to quality schools. While there is value in promoting educational integration along many dimensions, it should not come at the cost of ensuring high quality schooling options for families of all races or their right to choose from among them. Both our policymakers and the Democratic presidential candidates need to say it.
Nathan Barrett is the senior director of research at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is a former associate director and senior fellow with the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University.