Critics of charter schools have long worried that they engage in “creaming,” attracting the best students and most engaged parents and leaving neighborhood public schools the rest. But a more serious question is whether charter schools have contributed to the re-segregation of schools by race.
A study of Indianapolis charter schools suggests that, in some cases, they have.
The study, conducted by Johns Hopkins University education professor Marc Stein and published last summer in the American Journal of Education, found that charter-school choice in Indy led to “higher degrees of racial isolation and less diversity” than in the public schools the students were leaving.
African-American students were more likely to enroll in charter schools with a higher concentration of black students than the neighborhood schools they left; and white students more likely to enroll in schools with a higher percentage of white enrollment.
The average white student in the analytic sample chose a charter school that enrolled 13.9 percentage points more white students and 13.1 percentage points fewer black students than their previously enrolled school. Concomitantly, black students chose to enroll in charters with enrollments that were 9.2 percent more black and 5.6 percent less white than their former schools.
As a result, charter schools were becoming more racially isolated. In 2008-09, only one charter school in the study met the city desegregation target of having its enrollment of black students within 15 percentage points of Indianapolis Public Schools. When the charter schools opened, five met the target.
“The clearest implication” Stein writes, “is that, assuming a continuation in these trends, there will be an increased consolidation of schools into racially isolated groups: a group of racially isolated black schools and a group of racially isolated white schools.”
The study focused on schools chartered by the Indianapolis mayor’s office, which are widely considered to be some of the best-run charter schools in Indiana if not the nation. The data are several years old, and it’s not immediately obvious if the trend that Stein identified has continued. But it’s fairly clear that some Indy charters are nearly all black and some are largely white; some are very high-poverty and some are relatively low-poverty.
Ahmed Young, who last month became director of the Indianapolis Office of Education Innovation, which oversees charter schools, said the mayor’s office has increased its focus on educational equity in recent years and will continue to do so.
“What’s most important for us is making sure we provide a top-notch education for all our students and making sure we have equitable outcomes for all our students,” he said. “We’re having serious, substantive conversations about equity, about race, about disproportionality (in school discipline) and a lot of these issues that for a long time weren’t necessarily at the forefront.”
Young cited two initiatives the mayor-sponsored charters are piloting along with Indianapolis Public Schools. One is the University of Chicago-developed 5Essentials survey, designed to collect data on school culture and climate. The other is a system of school equity reports, modeled on a Washington, D.C., project that provides data on school performance broken down by categories of students.
These are positive moves, and it’s encouraging that new Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, who appointed Young, has emphasized his support for public school districts – not just IPS but the other 10 Indianapolis/Marion County districts. And this probably wouldn’t be happening without IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s willingness to cooperate with charter schools.
But the study of racial isolation in Indianapolis charter schools suggests that relying on school choice to improve education ignores important questions about how schools reflect the larger community.
As Stein, the study’s author, writes in the AJE Forum: “Racial isolation in school choice systems raises vitally important questions, which defy simple answers, about what we value as a society and how we should organize ourselves to realize those values.”
Moving toward increasingly separate but more-or-less equal schools for black, white and Latino students does not sound like progress.