BOULDER, CO – While our society is more diverse than ever before, schools are more segregated today than they were 30 years ago. School choice policies that allow children to enroll in schools outside of their neighborhood have the potential to reduce segregation and many of the inequities that flow from that segregation. Yet some of the nation's most segregated K-12 schools are public charter schools.
A new report from the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), Chartering Equity: Using Charter School Legislation and Policy to Advance Equal Educational Opportunity, written and researched by Julie F. Mead of the University of Wisconsin and Preston C. Green III of Penn State, offers guidance on how charter school policies can best be shaped to promote equity goals.
More than 5,400 charter schools in 40 states as well as D.C. and Puerto Rico enroll some 1.7 million students. The expansion of charters has been promoted by the No Child Left Behind act, as well as by the Obama administration's Race to the Top policy, and the charter segment is growing rapidly. Advocates contend that charters give poor families new opportunities to choose better schools for their children, just as the wealthy have had choices of either moving to other school districts or paying for private schools.
But skeptics argue that the growth of charter schools has led to the stratification and isolation of students by race, class, special education status, and English language learner status. This consequence of school choice has undermined key national goals of inclusion and integration. "Further, 43 percent of black charter school students attended schools that were 99 percent minority," Mead and Green write. By contrast, less than 15 percent of black students in traditional public schools attend such highly segregated schools.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Charter school policies can be shaped in ways that promote equity and inclusion. Mead and Green argue that policies can balance other societal goals with the benefit that arises from giving parents greater choice in schools.
"When school reform embraces parental choice in the form of charter schools, the value of equal educational opportunity must remain central," they write. "Ensuring that public educational dollars serve equity requires balancing the parents' choices against ... the state's interest in ensuring children's education meets appropriate standards." And one of those standards is whether the schools in question "serve all children regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, language, disability and gender."
To accomplish that end, the report recommends guidelines and rules for charter school authorizers and state legislatures. It makes similar recommendations for Congress as it considers a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind act.
The net effect of the recommended requirements would be to bring charter school authorization and revocation policies within the broader set of policies designed to promote equal access to education regardless of ethnic, racial or socioeconomic status.
For instance, Mead and Green suggest that charter schools be required to address how they would broaden opportunities for disadvantaged students. Additionally, charter schools would be held accountable, particularly at the time of charter renewal or revocation decisions, for taking concrete steps to ensure equal educational opportunity.
"Growth in the charter school sector for the mere sake of growth neglects the central justification for their existence: to improve the current public educational landscape for children and their families," Mead and Green write. The recommendations they offer are intended to shape charter school policies in ways that help address, rather than exacerbate, the existing the inequalities in U.S. schools. In a companion report, Model Policy Language for Charter School Equity, Mead and Green offer model legislation to carry out those recommendations.
The two reports were produced by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder, with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. In addition, the Ford Foundation provided funding for the policy report, Chartering Equity: Using Charter School Legislation and Policy to Advance Equal Educational Opportunity, which is part of a series from NEPC under the Ford Foundation-funded Initiative on Diversity, Equity, and Learning (IDEAL).