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"A Smarter Charter,"

by Richard D. Kahlenberg & Halley Potter November/December 2014 issue of Poverty & Race

Supporters of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently managed, often argue that such schools embody the promise of Brown v. Board of Education because they can provide new opportunities to low-income and minority students. Evidence suggests, however, that many charter schools are even more highly segregated than traditional public schools, and on average the charter sector performs only about as well as traditional public schools do. In a new book, A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, we suggest that it’s time to return to the original vision of charter schools as vehicles for integrating students—and empowering teachers—in order to improve outcomes for kids and fulfill the democratic promise of public education.

The Early Vision for Charter Schools

Education reformer and teacher union leader Albert Shanker proposed the creation of a new group of “charter schools” in 1988. In Shanker’s formulation, teachers would be empowered to draw on their expertise to create educational laboratories from which the traditional public schools would learn. Moreover, liberated from traditional school boundaries, Shanker and other early charter advocates suggested, charters could do a better job than the regular public schools of helping children of different racial, ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds come together to learn from one another.

Shanker’s proposal was based in part on a formative October 1987 visit to an innovative teacher-led middle and high school educating a diverse population in Cologne, Germany. The Holweide Comprehensive School staff was divided into teams of 6–8 teachers who were given enormous latitude on what subjects would be taught, when and by whom, so long as students were prepared to meet common standards. The school’s student body of 2,000 was highly diverse, with Turkish and Moroccan immigrant pupils learning alongside native Germans. Unlike most other German schools, where students were rigidly tracked, the Holweide school employed mixed-ability groupings. “The results,” Shanker wrote, “are impressive,” with unexpectedly large numbers of students going on to college.

The idea of charter schools received a boost in November 1988, when the Citizens League, a community policy organization in Minnesota, issued an influential report, Chartered Schools = Choices for Educators + Quality for All Students. Like Shanker, the committee that authored the report argued that charter schools should be guided by two central tenets: empowering teachers and promoting diversity. The report specified that charter schools would enroll students of all races and achievement levels. Charter schools would be required to have “an affirmative plan for promoting integration by ability level and race,” and failing to meet this requirement could be grounds for revoking the charter. Minnesota would soon thereafter become the nation’s first state to pass a charter school law.

Social Science Support

The early vision of racially and economically integrated charter schools was supported by a wide body of social science research that suggest both civic and cognitive benefits. American public schools—whether district schools or charter schools—are not only about raising academic achievement and promoting social mobility; they are also in the business of promoting an American identity, social cohesion and democratic citizenship.

Research finds that segregation by race and class undercuts those goals by increasing the risk of students having discriminatory attitudes and prejudices. Children are at risk of developing stereotypes about racial groups if they live in and are educated in racially isolated settings. By contrast, when school settings include students from multiple racial groups, students become more comfortable with people of other races, which leads to a dramatic decrease in discriminatory attitudes and prejudices. As Justice Thurgood Marshall noted in one desegregation case, “Unless our children begin to learn together, then there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”

In addition to offering important civic advantages, integrated schools—particularly those that bring together students of different socioeconomic backgrounds—on average produce stronger academic outcomes for students of all backgrounds. On the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) given to 4th-graders in math, for example, low-income students attending more affluent schools scored substantially higher than low-income students in high-poverty schools. The gap in their average scores is roughly the equivalent of almost two years’ learning.

One of the most methodologically rigorous studies on the effects of socioeconomic integration is a 2010 lottery-based study by Heather Schwartz of the RAND Corporation. Schwartz’s carefully controlled study examined students and families who were randomly assigned to public housing units in Montgomery County, Maryland, a diverse and high-achieving district outside Washington, DC. This research took advantage of a rare opportunity to compare two education approaches. On the one hand, the Montgomery County school district has invested substantial extra resources (about $2,000 per pupil) in its lowest-income schools to employ a number of innovative educational approaches. On the other hand, the county also has a longstanding inclusionary housing policy that enables low-income students to live in middle- and upper-middle-class communities and attend fairly affluent schools. The study controls for the fact that more motivated low-income families may scrimp and save to get their children into good schools by comparing students whose families were assigned by lottery into higher-poverty and lower-poverty schools. Schwartz found very large positive effects on student learning as a result of living in lower-poverty neighborhoods and attending lower-poverty elementary schools, even though students in higher-poverty schools received additional compensatory spending.

Charter Schools and Rising Segregation

As charter school legislation was enacted in states, however, Shanker’s vision of schools that empower teachers and integrate students was largely abandoned. Over time, concerns about diversity have often been eclipsed by efforts—well-meaning in nature, to be sure—that have the effect of concentrating minority and low-income students in racially and economically isolated charter schools. Rather than emphasizing diversity and the possibility for breaking down segregation, charter school supporters began advocating for schools to target minority and low-income group members, who are demonstrably in need of better schools. According to a 2010 study by the Civil Rights Project, for example, almost half of low-income students in charter schools attended schools where more than 75% of students are low-income, compared to about a third of low-income students in traditional public schools. In addition, 36% of all students in charter schools attended schools where 90% or more of students are from minority households, compared with 16% of all students in regular public schools.

How did a policy that began with the idea of promoting diversity end up exacerbating racial and economic concentrations? Fundamentally, charter school advocates suggested, integration and school quality are unrelated and distinct priorities, and quality matters more. When confronted by research finding higher levels of racial and economic segregation in charter schools, for example, Nelson Smith, then-president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), said, “We actually are very proud of the fact that charter schools enroll more low-income kids and more kids of color than do other public schools.” He continued: “The real civil rights issue for many of these kids is being trapped in dysfunctional schools.”

In fact, however, the best research evidence suggests that students in most charter schools perform about the same—not significantly better and not significantly worse than students in comparable public schools. A 2010 analysis by Peter C. Weitzel and Christopher A. Lubienski concludes: “The record on achievement is mixed, with most of the best evidence showing results similar to or somewhat below those of other public schools.”

A 2013 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), the most comprehensive research on charter school performance to date, found students in most charter schools performed the same or worse than those in district schools. One bright spot in the CREDO study was the finding that low-income students, English language learners, Black students and Hispanic students did somewhat better in charter schools; however, the study was not able to control for the possibility of self-selection bias among the students who applied for charter schools versus those who did not—or the possibility that the peer environment is stronger in schools where students must apply to attend.

Charters that Integrate

The good news is that although charter schools today tend to be more racially and economically segregated than traditional public schools— and the sector as a whole has mediocre results—there is great potential for charters to reverse this trend. Charter schools, like public magnet schools, are uniquely suited to create integrated student bodies. As schools of choice, they are not as constrained by residential segregation as are most public schools. And as schools created from scratch, with particular visions, they have the potential to draw interest from diverse income, racial and ethnic groups.

In A Smarter Charter, we highlight nine high-achieving charter schools or networks that consciously integrated students from different racial and economic backgrounds:
  • Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy, Cumberland and Lincoln, RI
  • Capital City Public Charter School, Washington, DC
  • City Neighbors, Baltimore, MD
  • Community Roots Charter School, Brooklyn, NY
  • DSST Public Schools, Denver, CO
  • E. L. Haynes Public Charter School, Washington, DC
  • High Tech High, San Diego, CA
  • Larchmont Charter School, Los Angeles, CA
  • Morris Jeff Community School, New Orleans, LA
The charter school leaders we interviewed found that it was relatively easy to attract families from many different backgrounds as long as they had a high-quality program. Bill Kurtz explained that the academic success of DSST Public Schools attracts families from across the Denver area. DSST opened in 2004 as a single school—the Denver School of Science and Technology. Early buzz about the school focused on the state-of-the-art facilities and extensive use of technology. By its 3rd year, the school was drawing applications from students in more than 65 schools across the Denver area—including many private and out-of-district public schools. “We’re really proud of the fact that we have kids from all over the city in our schools who feel comfortable in our schools [and] who see us as not a school serving this population or that population,” Kurtz explained. “We have parents literally pulling kids from the most elite private schools in Denver to come to our schools, and we have homeless kids who are coming to our schools. It’s really phenomenal.”

Karen Dresden, founding principal and head of school at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, DC, said that different parents choose the preschool–12 school for different reasons, which is possible because Capital City offers a rich academic program. Capital City is an Expeditionary Learning school, which is a whole-school model (including recommendations for curriculum, pedagogy and professional development) that focuses on project-based learning. For some parents, Expeditionary Learning is the biggest draw at Capital City, and, according to Dresden, these parents are more likely to be middle-class and white. But other parents are drawn to the school’s social curriculum, arts and fitness programs, or after-school activities. “People like that it feels like a well-resourced school,” she explained. For other families, in particular many of the school’s Latino families, a nurturing environment is the priority.“There’s a sense of safety that’s really important,” Dresden noted. “We’re a small school. We really care about kids.”

City Neighbors Charter School, a K–8 school that is part of a family of three charter schools in Baltimore, similarly attracts parents through a variety of channels. Like Dresden, Bobbi Macdonald, the school’s founder, noted that middle-class families were more likely to be attracted to the school’s instructional model, which follows a progressive philosophy that emphasizes project learning, the arts and student empowerment. Other parents find the school because they’re looking for a safe environment, they live nearby, or they hear from others that City Neighbors is a good school. City Neighbors works hard to involve parents and explain the school’s philosophy. “Those people who might not have understood [our instructional model] at the beginning become the most passionate ambassadors for City Neighbors because they see the difference,” Macdonald explained.

Public Policies to Encourage Integrated Charters

We can encourage more integrated charter schools like DSST, Capital City, and City Neighbors by changing public policies in a number of important ways. States should allow charter schools to enroll students from across a region and fund transportation to charter schools, at least for all low-income students. The federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 should adjust competitive preferences to encourage integrated charter schools. And federal grant programs and state laws should allow charter schools to use a variety of weighted lotteries to promote integration.

Albert Shanker’s ideas for charter schools, formulated more than two decades ago, turn out to be a powerful vision for educational innovation in a new century. Charter schools can address the educational demands of a 21st Century society by giving students the chance to work with a diverse group of peers and treating teachers as 21st Century professionals engaged in collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving. Teacher voice and student diversity, largely forgotten goals from the earliest ideas about charter schools, may hold the best hope for improving charter schools—and thereby illuminate a path for strengthening our entire system of public education.

What About the Effect of Integrated Charter Schools on Traditional Public Schools?

In advocating economically mixed charter schools (which we define as those with 30-70% low-income students), we recognize that in high-poverty districts, the result could be a marginal increase in the proportion of low-income students in the traditional public schools. For example, creating a 50% middle-class charter school in an 80% low-income district might mean the other schools rise on average to 81% or 82% low-income. Any rise in district school segregation is a legitimate concern, as Khin Mai Aung and David Tipson note in “School Integration Requires Cooperation: Some Lessons from New York City” (Poverty & Race, May/June 2013). We have long advocated for integration of traditional public schools, which continue to educate the vast majority of students nationally. We suggest three ways to minimize any adverse impact that integrated charters have on district schools.

First, wherever possible, integrated urban charter schools should recruit middle-class students from neighboring middle-class districts, rather than siphoning off middle-class students from urban district schools. Second, integrated charters should keep an eye on the impact recruitment efforts have on the demographic balance of nearby traditional public schools and adjust marketing to avoid negative effects. Third, integrated charter schools should follow Aung and Tipson’s suggestion to set up mechanisms to work with district schools “to avoid destabilizing the diversity of surrounding schools.” Implementing a single admissions process for district schools and charter schools, like the systems that have been implemented in Washington, DC and Denver, CO, is a first step towards better coordination. As we argue more generally in A Smarter Charter, the charter and district sectors need to build bridges and cooperate with one another to improve outcomes for all students.

Where these protections can be put in place, we support the creation of new socioeconomically integrated charter schools, just as we support integrated magnet schools that marginally increase poverty concentrations in traditional public schools, for two reasons.

To begin with, we believe there are strong benefits to creating a net plus in the number of socioeconomically integrated options available to students. We do not believe it is justified, educationally or morally, to hold low-income students hostage in an 80% low-income district, preventing them from attending an economically integrated school just because others will go from 80% to 81% or 82% low-income.

Furthermore, there is reason to believe that the creation of a subset of strong, economically integrated charter or magnet schools can have the effect, over time, of creating additional middle-class interest in the public schools in higher-poverty districts. The demographic make-up of the public school population in a district is not fixed. If successful integrated schools are created in mixed-income areas, it is possible that the success of these schools will change the calculations of some middle-class parents, making them more willing to use the public schools than to exit to the private school system or move to more affluent areas. In the DSST lottery for 2006, for example, only 36% of student applications came from district schools in Denver, while 40% came from private or out-of-district public schools.

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battle Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy (Columbia Univ. Press, 2007)
Halley Potter is a Fellow at The Century Foundation and former charter school teacher.
Portions of this article were drawn from A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, by Richard D. Kahlenberg & Halley Potter (Teachers College Press, 2014).

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