In a 2016 Civil Rights Project research brief, “Brown at 62: School Segregation by Race, Poverty and State,” Orfield and his co-authors wrote that it has been a long time since the challenge of school segregation has been met with viable approaches to integrate schools by race, ethnicity, and income levels.
Instead, we have spent decades trying another approach: policies that have focused on attempting to equalize schools and opportunity through accountability and high-stakes testing policies, not to mention the federal subsidization of entirely new systems of school choice, like charter schools, without any civil-rights provisions. These policies have not succeeded in reducing racial segregation or inequality.
The project’s last national look at charter schools, in 2010, found that racial and ethnic isolation of minorities is far more common in charter schools than traditional public schools. Seventy percent of black students enrolled in charters attended schools deemed “intensely segregated.” (The report defines such segregation as occurring when at least 90 percent of students were minorities.) This level of segregation was twice as high as in traditional public schools, the report said. The same analysis also found that half of Latino charter school students attended “intensely segregated” schools. Critics say the national data in the report are misleading, since so many charters serve inner-city neighborhoods.
“I don’t think the effect of segregation is very much different between these two systems,” Orfield said of charters and traditional public school districts. “The problem is, these are new schools. We’re creating new segregated schools….In most of them, nobody’s doing anything to make them diverse.”
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But is racial isolation necessarily a bad thing?
Stewart, who also is a regular contributor to the Citizen Ed blog, described a “homegrown” charter system in his home state of Minnesota that’s divided by choice, where the top priority is educating students and meeting their needs in ways the school district has not.
“We have Somali schools, we have Hmong schools, we have schools for Native American kids,” Stewart said. “And those communities don’t really see their schools as segregated or as isolated, they see them as kind of culturally affirming environments for kids that they can’t get in a very white state like Minnesota.”
Stewart later added, “When the government assigns you by race to inferior schools, that is traditionally what we have considered to be segregation. When parents pick a culturally affirming program for their child and they are from a historically marginalized population like Indians or black people—I happen to be a black Indian—that is so far from the traditional understanding of segregation that it’s almost insulting to call it that.”