Charters, Segregation, and Social Justice- A Response to Dr. Danielsen

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Relying on research from Vermont and Santa Ana, Dr. Bartley Danielsen’s Point of View column “More school choice will ease social ills,” exhorts North Carolinians to “embrace charter schools” and private school vouchers to address the continuing impacts of residential segregation. But Dr. Danielsen ignores two critical elements: first, the responsibility of school boards that promote and defend so-called “neighborhood schools” assignment plans that replicate and reinforce segregation in public schools; and second, in North Carolina, the charter schools he urges us to embrace are almost twice as segregated as traditional public schools.

Dr. Danielsen is correct in concluding that racial and socio-economic integration is an invaluable component for improving the lives of residents generally, and for schools in particular. As the US Departments of Education and Justice have stated, “Racially diverse schools provide incalculable educational and civic benefits by promoting cross-racial understanding, breaking down racial and other stereotypes, and eliminating bias and prejudice.” These federal agencies also noted that racially isolated schools “fail to provide the full panoply of benefits that K-12 schools can offer,” and often have higher teacher turnover rates, less rigorous curricular resources, fewer high quality teachers or administrators, and inferior facilities or educational resources. As a result, educational achievement suffers.

But throughout North Carolina, the segregation or resegregation of schools—and the concomitant decision by some parents to abandon those schools—is the foreseeable result of school boards adopting and maintaining student assignment plans that exacerbate and entrench segregated housing patterns. In the abstract, “neighborhood schools” seems like a benign and reasonable policy, until one considers that many North Carolinians still live in neighborhoods segregated by race and class. Schools ought to help students of all races transcend that segregation—not reinforce it.

We see the cycle repeating itself in school districts across the state. School boards adopt “facially neutral” assignment plans, segregating students by race and class. Segregated schools then experience a depletion of critical educational resources, including effective teachers and principals, directly impacting student achievement. The school’s reputation begins to suffer, and parents with the means to do so either take advantage of open transfer policies within the district or seek out charters. Racially isolated, high minority schools become under-enrolled, leading to further disinvestment and eventual closure, adversely impacting the remaining students and the communities in which these schools are located. And then, when the school board reassigns students to accommodate the “abandoned” school’s displaced students, it continues to refuse to prioritize integration and the pattern begins again.

Meanwhile, charters in North Carolina offer a more segregated alternative for parents. A 2015 study by education researchers Helen Ladd, Charles Clotfleter and John Holbein showed that most charter schools are imbalanced (80% or more white or 80% or more non-white), with an increasing overall percentage of white charter students. The study also showed that both black and white students move from more integrated traditional schools to more segregated charters (black students from schools averaging 53% black to charters averaging 72% black; white students from schools averaging 28% black to charters averaging less than 18% black). These patterns also leave the schools from which these students come—in Mecklenburg, Durham and Wake in particular, which between them have approximately 60 charters—even more racially segregated. And rather than creating economically diverse communities, the profusion of charters helps sustain gentrification, allowing white, upper-middle class families to move into redeveloping areas secure in the knowledge that their kids won’t have to attend schools with low-wealth students or children of color.

With appropriate oversight and administration, charter schools could fulfill their promise of uncoupling school assignment from segregated housing patterns. But it will take more than merely “embracing” more charters or vouchers. It will take political commitment to the fundamental educational value of integrated, diverse classrooms and schools, and to adopt policies that advance that commitment, including weighted lottery admissions, the provision of transportation and free-or-reduced-price lunch, and programs that target underrepresented demographics. Of course, if policymakers could demonstrate the vision and fortitude to adopt such measures, they could also make the necessary changes to traditional public school assignment policies that would improve educational outcomes and create the vibrant, integrated classrooms (and in turn communities) we all agree are so vital to our collective well-being. That is the real choice we have to make to address today’s social ills.
Posted by Mark Dorosin on Wed. October 26, 2016 9:17 AM
Categories: Education, Segregation
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