School buses in the fall.
Schools will open on Monday, but district officials will continue to monitor the storm. Credit: Larry Darling / FlickrCC

Charter schools have been around for 25 years, following a 1991 Minnesota law that paved the way for eight such schools there.

Today, charter schools enroll a small percentage of public school students across the country, but they continue to inspire heated debate about equity and education reform.

Now, a new national study of enrollment, poverty, and testing data concludes that charter schools have little impact on the widespread racial segregation found in traditional public schools.

“Regardless of charter status, white, black, and Hispanic children on average attend schools in which their group is the majority, and Asian and Native American children attend schools where their group is disproportionately represented,” write John Logan of Brown University and Julia Burdick-Will of Johns Hopkins University in the August issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

“Charter enrollment has expanded greatly in the last decade, and it is becoming possible now to gain a better sense of their profile – where they are, who enrolls in them, and how they compare to non-charter schools,” according to the study.

The findings rely on nationwide data from the 2010-2011 school year for fourth and tenth graders in districts with at least one charter school. The study comes at a time of heated debate about the role of charter schools. A 2010 report from the Civil Rights Project out of the University of California, Los Angeles, concluded that “the charter school movement has been a major political success, but it has been a civil rights failure.” The report continues, saying, “though there are some remarkable and diverse charter schools, most are neither.”

Indeed, the study from Logan and Burdick-Will found that charter schools do little to disrupt segregation in public schools and, in some cases, make it worse. “(There) is greater racial isolation in charter schools than in non-charter schools in the same district,” according to the report.

“This effect is found for white children…but even more for elementary black and Native American students.” Racial isolation was also compounded by the relative socioeconomic isolation found in charters as well. “(Poverty) is significantly lower in the charter schools attended by white children, especially in comparison with the charter schools attended by elementary black children and Hispanic high school students.”

Though the study was not an attempt to address the effectiveness of teaching in charter schools, the authors do note that charter school students generally fare no better, if not worse, than traditional public school students on standardized test scores. “Only for Asians is there a more positive result,” the report said.

The study also revealed specific geographic patterns. Though the first charter school legislation was written in Minnesota, charter schools tend to be located in Southern states, and in large urban school districts with high proportions of non-white students, “but lower poverty.”

Within that though, the authors found that charter schools in high-poverty neighborhoods did tend to have higher test scores, whereas charter schools in low-poverty neighborhoods performed worse.

“Our key result,” wrote the authors, “is that charter schools mean different things in different contexts and for different types of students.” To explain the variation, the researchers wrote, “our view is that most of the differences that we found are probably explained by parental selection.”

But the findings on overall racial disparities between schools, regardless of charter status, were the strongest and most consistent, according to the authors.

“Progress toward desegregating schools in the 1970s is now four decades in the past, and it is important now to be aware that the high remaining levels of segregation also place black, Hispanic, and Native American children in the most disadvantaged schools,” the report reads. “Their schools, charter or non-charter, are poorer, more racially homogeneous, and lower performing on standardized tests than those attended by white and Asian students.”

The overlapping quality of socioeconomic and racial segregation has been referred to as “double segregation” by the Civil Rights Project. Public schools have continued to be stratified, first after the end of integration efforts and then with the increase of income inequality.

A recent report by The Century Foundation, a progressive think-tank, advocates for school integration policies along socioeconomic lines, in part, the report argues, because they are less likely to face legal challenges than race-based integration policies. In an attempt to catalogue districts and charter networks that currently have some sort of integration policy in place, the report found that “roughly 8% of all public school students currently attend school districts or charter schools that use socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment.”

Interestingly, the states with the greatest concentrations of such districts and charter networks were not in the South, except for North Carolina. And of the 91 catalogued examples only “six are individual charter schools or charter school networks,” none of which are in the South.

Focusing not on individual student progress or effectiveness, Logan and Burdick-Will conclude their report saying, “from the perspective of educational policy, these results underline the continuing substantial disparities in opportunities available to students of different racial or ethnic background.”

Leah Binkovitz is a staff writer for the Kinder Institute and its Urban Edge blog. She previously covered Fort Bend County for the Houston Chronicle. Before that, she was a journalism fellow in Washington,...