Two themes jump out from Indiana Department of Education demographic data on charter school students in Indiana. First, it’s a tale of two cities – or, more accurately, a tale of two districts.
Over half of Indiana’s nearly 45,000 charter school students live in the Indianapolis Public Schools and Gary Community Schools districts, even though those districts account for fewer than 5% of the state’s students. State charter school data are overwhelmingly skewed by what happens in those two districts.
Second, Indianapolis’ approximately 50 charter schools enroll higher percentages of Black and economically disadvantaged students than IPS schools – even though IPS has significantly more Black students and students from low-income families than most districts in the state.
Black, Hispanic and multiracial students account for at least 90% of enrollment in over half of Indianapolis charter schools. White students are a majority at three Indianapolis charter schools (excluding schools for students with disabilities or students in recovery).
Some 82.6% of students in the Indianapolis charter schools qualify for free or reduced-price meals, compared to 65.4% of IPS students, according to state data.
Elsewhere in the state, however, there is no consistent pattern:
- In Gary Community Schools, over 90% of students are Black in both district and charter schools, and about 1% of students are white in both sectors.
- In South Bend, charter school students are more likely to be white and less likely to be Hispanic than students in South Bend Community Schools. Black students make up a similar percentage in both charter and district schools.
- In Fort Wayne, students in charter schools are more likely to be Asian and less likely to be Hispanic than Fort Wayne Community Schools students. But charter school students make up fewer than 3% of Fort Wayne students. Private school vouchers are much more popular.
- Students in virtual charter schools are more likely than the state average to be white. Many of those students are from rural districts without nearby brick-and-mortar charter schools.
In Gary, more students attend charter schools than attend Gary Community Schools. In IPS, for students who live in the district and receive state education funding, 47% attend IPS schools and 37% attend charter schools. Others receive private school vouchers or transfer to other school districts.
In Indianapolis, the vast majority of charter school students live in the IPS district. Charter school enrollment in the other 10 city districts is low, ranging from 1.3% to 7.3%.
There are several reasons. Indiana has had charter schools for nearly 20 years. In the early years, charter schools that located within the IPS district received more per-pupil funding from the state, creating an incentive to locate in IPS. Most Indy charters are still located within IPS boundaries.
Indianapolis is unique in that the mayor can authorize charter schools. Charter school directors who worked for the past three three mayors, Bart Peterson, Greg Ballard and Joe Hogsett, told me there has never been a policy to locate charter schools only or primarily in the IPS district. But there may be a perception that IPS families want or need more options.
“The primary goal of the charter school movement in Indianapolis has been to grow high-quality educational options for marginalized children who historically have been underserved,” said Brandon Brown, executive director of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit that supports charter schools. “As a result, charter schools tend to locate where the need is the greatest.”
IPS has in recent years rolled out the welcome mat for charter schools. The district and many charter schools, but not other Indianapolis districts, participate in Enroll Indy, a system for choosing and enrolling in schools. Also, IPS and The Mind Trust have collaborated since 2014 to open and support “innovation network” schools. Twenty of those are charter schools that have innovation network agreements with IPS. Seven are IPS schools managed by charter school operators.
Are charter schools segregated?
Research has found that, nationally, charter schools tend to be more segregated than traditional public schools in areas where Black and Hispanic students are the majority, like Indianapolis. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA has documented an increase in “intensely segregated” schools of all types serving Black and Hispanic students; those are schools where fewer than 10% of students are white.
In Indianapolis, that describes over half of charter schools and about 40% of IPS schools.
Of course, schools in and around Indianapolis have been racially divided for at least 100 years – because of decisions white people have made.
Redlining by lending institutions and racist real estate practices kept African American and white residents in separate neighborhoods served by separate schools. School boards, including a Klan-dominated board in the 1920s, enforced segregation. White Indianapolis “fought school desegregation with a ferocity rarely matched by any other northern city,” historian Richard B. Pierce has written.
U.S. District Judge S. Hugh Dillin issued desegregation orders starting in the 1970s that had Black students bused from IPS to other Indianapolis districts, but many white families left those districts for private schools or the suburbs. Today, seven of the 11 Indianapolis districts are less than 30% white.
Given that history, it’s not surprising if many Indianapolis families don’t see integration as a priority.
An Enroll Indy survey found that parents gave the highest priority to special programs, test scores and word-of-mouth reputation in choosing a school. While response rates were low – respondents may not be representative — just over 60% said a school’s demographics were important or very important. But do they prefer an integrated school or one where most kids look like their own? We don’t know.
Considerable research shows that integrated schools benefit students, however, both academically and socially/emotionally. In the latter category, they especially benefit white students. It’s unfortunate that, in Indiana, one in five students attend schools where more than 90% of students are white.
In 1974, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the following in a dissent to the 5-4 Milliken v. Bradley decision, which put the brakes on court-ordered school desegregation:
“Our nation, I fear, will be ill served by the court’s refusal to remedy separate and unequal education, for unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together and understand each other.”
Forty-seven years later, our children are less and less likely to learn together. And it’s all too obvious that we haven’t learned to live together and understand each other.