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"School Integration Requires Cooperation: Some Lessons from New York City,"

by Khin Mai Aung & David Tipson May/June 2013 issue of Poverty & Race

In February 2013, charter school operators across New York City— where we live and work—submitted letters to local parent Community Education Councils announcing plans to site new charter schools. Some operators touted the benefits of racially and economically diverse schools and suggested that charters represent an alternative to the hopeless degree of segregation found in traditional public schools. This message is consistent with an emerging narrative in the press placing charters at the forefront of a 21st-century school-diversity movement. This topic was also addressed in a recent report that PRRAC jointly released with the Century Foundation, entitled “Diverse Charter Schools: Can Racial and Socioeconomic Integration Promote Better Outcomes For Students?” PRRAC’s report examined the related issue of how state, federal and local policies can and should better encourage charters—which nationally are more likely than district schools to be racially or economically segregated—to serve more diverse student populations.

As advocates for school diversity, we find the goal of creating diverse charter schools laudable, but we have serious concerns with any account that ignores the primary role that traditional public schools can and must play to integrate our schools. Over the last two decades, American cities of all sizes have witnessed what some are calling a “reversal” of white flight. Although its causes, consequences, and meanings are hotly debated, this phenomenon—more than anything charter schools are doing—has led to a renewed interest in racial and economic diversity in urban schools in schools of all kinds.

Putting aside the issue that they are usually more segregated than traditional public schools, charter schools, by design, are poorly situated to advance integration. Integration is a systemic strategy requiring cooperation across a school district, whereas charter schools are independent entities with atomized governance. In New York City at least, the adversarial posture of many charter schools toward district-run schools (one letter to a Community Education Council cited “lagging middle-class schools”) even further diminishes their potential as a tool of systemic change.

Isolated pursuit of an acontextual definition of diversity in a small number of charters can lead to less integration across a school system as a whole. In an urban school district, each school’s enrollment patterns and demographics are affected by that of other nearby schools. Depending on the school’s demographic targets and its success in recruiting, the introduction of a “diverse” charter could draw white and middle-class families away from existing schools thereby increasing racial isolation and poverty concentration.

The primary concern we have with the diverse-charter-school narrative, however, is its assumption that segregation in traditional public school is intractable. This assumption simply doesn't jibe with the research and what we see happening all around us in New York City. We note first that, nationally, magnet schools continue to be effective tools for integration and outperform charter schools on a host of metrics. In contrast to the adversarial and competitive stance of charter schools we see in New York, federal Magnet School Assistance grants encourage cooperation among multiple schools and have a built-in review process to avoid destabilizing the diversity of surrounding schools.

Although many parents still choose enclaves, there is mounting evidence that middle-class parents in New York City prefer diverse schools and crave leadership on this issue from school officials. We see organized diversity advocacy by parents of all backgrounds across large areas of Brooklyn and Manhattan. In the heart of Brownstone Brooklyn, for example, two elected parent bodies worked with the New York City Department of Education to create the first student-assignment plan to promote diversity since school administration was centralized over a decade ago. The Department leadership states that this plan will now be a model for schools across the city.

The increasing interest in school diversity in places like New York City is driven by historic demographic shifts in cities and suburbs and by a growing awareness that the United States will be majority minority within the next 30 years. Although they will not lead the movement, charter schools that value integration over isolated “diversity” can play a supporting role by collaborating with public schools that share the same goal.

Khin Mai Aung is Director of the Educational Equity Program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), where she advocates for integration and diversity in K-12 and higher education.
David Tipson is Director of New York Appleseed, which advocates for equity of access and fair allocation of resources to schools and neighborhoods in New York City.

The authors are members of the steering committee of the National Coalition on School Diversity. The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Coalition. A version of this article was previously published in the Next City blog at

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