Segregation Through Charter Schools in North Carolina

Charter schools have been criticized for a myriad of reasons, and now professor at Duke University have found yet another reason to object to the growing charter movement. Their research, newly released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, shows that charter schools in North Carolina are becoming increasingly segregated and provide a way for white families to secede from the public educational system. 

According to the study, North Carolina's history of using charter-school-like initiatives to maintain segregation made parents and educators very skeptical when charters were first proposed in the 1990s. Apparently their skepticism was well warranted – even though those first charters were required to "reasonably reflect" the racial and ethnic makeup of their surrounding community within a year of opening and had substantial overrepresentation of black students, today these charter schools have an overrepresentation of white students and are increasingly segregated in general.

From the report:

Few charter schools had racially balanced student bodies. Over time this racial imbalance has intensified, with the share of students in predominantly white charters nearly doubling, from 24.2 to 47.1 percent. With a declining overall share of minority students in charter schools, the share of students in predominantly minority schools has declined somewhat but has become more concentrated in schools that are more than 90 percent minority. These patterns are strikingly different from the racial mix of students in traditional public schools.

The report also digs into what could be contributing to this increasing segregation. Because parents get to choose their child's charter school, parents' biases can lead to schools developing these high concentrations of white or minority students. The researchers found that white parents preferred schools that had only a black population of 20%.Thus, as the report states, "though black parents might prefer racially balanced schools, the fact that white parents prefer schools with far lower proportions of black students sets up a tipping point. Once a school becomes 'too black,' it becomes almost all black as white parents avoid it."

This new research makes it obvious that school choice is clearly not a solution for addressing inequality, and in fact may actually contribute to increasing it. Although public schools are not necessarily better at desegregating schools—see last year's interactive mapping project on segregation in schools from the Urban Institute—charter schools, at least in North Carolina, have made the problem worse.

You can find the complete report here, and an article in The Washington Post on the issue here.

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