A Closer Look at Charter Schools and Segregation: Flawed Comparisons Lead to Overstated Conclusions

By Ritter, Gary; Jensen, Nathan et al. | Education Next, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

A Closer Look at Charter Schools and Segregation: Flawed Comparisons Lead to Overstated Conclusions


Ritter, Gary, Jensen, Nathan, Kisida, Brian, McGee, Joshua, Education Next


In January 2010, the UCLA-based Civil Rights Project (CRP) released "Choice without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards." The study intended to report on, among other things, levels of racial segregation in charter schools across the United States. The authors use 2007-08 data from the U.S. Department of Education's Common Core of Data (CCD) to compare the racial composition of charter schools to that of traditional public schools at three different levels of aggregation: nationwide; within 40 states and the District of Columbia; and within 39 metropolitan areas with large enrollments of charter school students. Based on these comparisons, the authors conclude, incorrectly in our view, that charter schools experience severe levels of racial segregation compared to traditional public schools (TPS).

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We will show that, when examined more appropriately, the data actually reveal small differences in the level of overall segregation between the charter school sector and the traditional public-school sector. Indeed, we find the majority of students in the central cities of metropolitan areas, in both charter and traditional public schools, attend school in intensely segregated settings. Our findings are similar to those in a 2009 report by RAND, in which researchers focused on segregation in five large metropolitan areas (Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and San Diego)--areas that were also included in the CRP report. The RAND authors, with the benefit of student-level data, follow students who move from traditional public schools into charter schools and conclude that these transfers have "surprisingly little effect on racial distributions across the sites." The authors of the RAND report write:

  Across 21 comparisons (seven sites with three racial groups each), we
  find only two cases in which the average difference between the
  ending TPS and the receiving charter school is greater than 10
  percentage points in the concentration of the transferring student's
  race.

The RAND report, based on a superior methodology, provides strong evidence that the CRP claims are off base. Their findings, coupled with our own, offer a significantly different portrayal of segregation in charter schools than the CRP report. We find no basis for the allegations made by the CRP authors, who argue that charter-school enrollment growth, based on the free choices of mostly minority families, represents a "civil rights failure."

While we find fault with the methodology employed by the CRP authors, and with their conclusions, we recognize that the questions addressed by the CRP, in this report and in scores of earlier ones, concern issues of importance for policymakers and the public alike. With the billions of dollars invested each year in public schools, both traditional and charter, and the millions of hours that we compel our children to attend these schools, it is critical that we have a basic understanding of the school environment that we are providing. Moreover, given the history of forced racial segregation in our nation's schools, we must be ever-attentive to these issues.

Indeed, because these questions are of such significance, it is imperative that they be addressed carefully and correctly.

The Wrong Approach

Unfortunately, the analyses employed in the CRP report do not meet this standard. The authors begin by presenting a great deal of descriptive data on the overall enrollment and aggregate racial composition in public charter schools compared to traditional public schools. Based only on enrollments aggregated to the national and state level, the authors repeatedly highlight the overrepresentation of black students in charter schools in an attempt to portray a harmful degree of segregation. But comparisons of simple averages at such a high level of aggregation can obscure wide differences in school-level demographics among both charter and traditional public schools. …

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A Closer Look at Charter Schools and Segregation: Flawed Comparisons Lead to Overstated Conclusions
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