Mapping 2015 charter-school data in the greater Charlotte area, you can see how these parent choices play out. Schools with student populations that are almost completely black (and sometimes Hispanic) cluster in the largely black urban core. Those in the inner-ring and outer-ring suburbs feature majority or almost exclusively white student populations. (Note: The UNC Charlotte sociology professor Roslyn Mickelson provided CityLab with this data, but could not confirm whether Charlotte-area charter schools themselves are measurably more segregated than nearby public schools).
Eve Ewing, a sociologist of race and education at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, argues such stratification is built into the design of many school-choice programs. "The notion of ‘choice’ suggests that all options are on the table for all parents,” says Ewing, “but when resources like transportation, childcare, and information access are unequally distributed, the choices on the table are in fact very constrained."
The Twin Cities and Charlotte examples also suggest that deregulated school operators, not just parents, may be helping drive the disparities in parents’ access to choices. In Minnesota, charter schools are not required by state law to take any action to reduce segregation. Similarly, North Carolina state law allows families to choose any charter in the state, as long as they can provide their own transportation. It can be far more difficult for non-affluent families to send their kids to charter schools in the wealthier parts of town: In the greater Charlotte-area charter schools mapped above, for example, only four of the 21 majority-white and Asian charter schools provided free transportation, whereas seven of the 15 majority black and Latino charter schools did so.
Some policy experts say school-choice programs must take active steps to ensure they do not engineer district-level segregation. “In order for school choice to promote integration, diversity must be built into the design of the program,” says Potter. She points to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where “students are assigned to schools based on their families' ranked choices,” she says, and a system is in place to “make sure that all schools roughly reflect the diversity of the district.”
Charter-school advocates observe that DeVos, or any education secretary, would have a limited ability to influence school diversity. In a statement, Vanessa Descalzi of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools points out that “[c]harter schools are public schools and therefore, subject to the same federal requirements on integration as all other public schools. The Every Student Succeeds Act ensures important decisions about education, including the expansion and oversight of charter schools, remain firmly in the hands of states—the Secretary of Education has surprisingly little influence in those matters.”
For civil-rights advocates, however, the concern is that DeVos’ extremely deregulated vision of school choice will exacerbate existing trends. “We don’t have a problem with charter schools, but we do have a problem with massive segregation,” says Yusef Mgeni, the vice-president of the St. Paul NAACP and a former school administrator. “Public schools take anyone who walks off the sidewalk, but charters here will say, ‘We would love to take your child in, but he’s just not a good fit.’ DeVos has said her priorities are charters, vouchers, and choice … so people here are fastening their seat belts. We will be in for a rough ride.”
This post appears courtesy of CityLab.