Charter Schools and the Risk of Increased Segregation: Charter Schools, on Average, Don't Have an Academic Advantage over Traditional Public Schools, but They Do Have a Significant Risk of Leading to More Segregation

Article excerpt

In remarks at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan emphasized the importance of "compelling educational research" and expressed concern that "today educators and policy makers still have a large unmet need for relevant research.... Sadly, school leaders and educators too often have to guess when they make education policy."

The fact is we don't have to guess about the consequences of one of the Obama Administration's most visible policies: the national expansion of charter schools. We need only turn to a large body of relevant research showing that charter schools, on average, don't have an academic advantage over traditional public schools, but they do have a significant risk of leading to increased segregation.

In spite of this, the policy on charter schools remains a centerpiece of the administration's initiatives (as it was, in a different form, in the Bush Administration), despite abundant evidence that the policy is inconsistent with the longstanding goal of promoting school integration.

Although there has been considerable public attention to test-based accountability and to comparing student achievement in charter and traditional public schools, there has been less attention to the link between charter schools and increased segregation. A policy that exacerbates existing levels of segregation should be a major concern, particularly in the current environment: large inequalities in income and wealth, a widening gap in student achievement between affluent and low-income students, and implementation of state voucher and tax plans, which further contribute to student stratification.

This article considers how a policy promoting the expansion of charter schools risks increasing segregation based on race, ethnicity, and income. It also considers the potential for increasing the segregation of special education and language-minority students and for contributing to religious and cultural stratification not typically found in U.S. public education.

Federal policy and research evidence

The Obama Administration has promoted expanding the number of charter schools, both through its public advocacy and through the Race to the Top (RttT) competition. RttT gave states a strong incentive to reduce or eliminate caps that had previously limited charter school expansion. Nationally, the proportion of charter schools to public schools has tripled since 2000 and, in the last several years, some states have accelerated that trend in response to RttT.

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The conclusions summarized in the sections that follow are based on a wide array of research in the United States and in other countries. The research review of school choice programs in the United States is focused on charter schools to reflect the focus of the Obama Administration. The research review in other countries includes a broader set of programs because the 10 countries reviewed use a variety of school choice initiatives--academies, vouchers, or subsidies--in structuring their education systems. For purposes of analyzing segregation effects, however, these various initiatives operate in very similar ways.

The studies reviewed used a mix of methodologies. Some compared the demographic characteristics of students in school choice programs with those in the traditional public schools they would have attended. Others compared the characteristics of students in school choice programs with those in the surrounding communities. Case studies were also conducted to increase understanding of the reasons for the choices families and schools make. Regardless of the specific methodology used, however, the preponderance of research evidence leads to the following conclusions:

#1. There is a strong link between school choice programs and an increase in student segregation by race, ethnicity, and income. …