Underscoring just how segregated our public education system remains some 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education, New York City’s most selective public high school made headlines — and not the good kind — when it announced that it offered seven of 900 available slots for the Class of 2023 to black students.
The numbers at Stuyvesant High School mirror those at many of the city’s elite schools. In fact, in New York City and in districts across the country, the problem is getting worse, not better.
There are a variety of reasons why U.S. schools are becoming more segregated, many of which have more to do with community histories and residential patterns than they do with the schools themselves. The causes are particularly complex in New York, one of the nation’s most segregated school systems, and include a contentious, decades-old specialized admissions test that was originally intended as a tool to level the playing field.
There’s even less consensus when it comes to solutions to school segregation. The issue is so divisive in New York, for instance, that leading officials like Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have declined to take a position on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to reform the admissions process for the city’s specialized high schools.
Elsewhere, politicians and parents decry rising segregation while dismissing their own roles in keeping schools segregated. It’s almost as if we’ve returned to the days of “separate but equal” — wherein political leaders find it easier to advocate for increased funding to some schools, predominantly low-income and minority schools, rather than call for all schools to have integrated student bodies.
Charter schools are squarely at the center of many of these debates, in part because studies show that charters tend to be more segregated for low-income students and students of color than traditional public schools. But this observation, while certainly true historically, paints a misleading picture of the sector as a whole, wrongly framing charter schools as exclusionary by nature and design.
The truth is that charter schools hold tremendous, untapped potential to serve as engines of diversity and inclusion. The flexibility of the charter school model, and the fact that charters are typically built from scratch, arguably makes charters better suited to fostering integration than traditional district schools, which have constraints on whom they can enroll.
So how do we ensure that charters support integration rather than exacerbate segregation, as they often do now? It starts with shifting our focus away from individual schools and school leaders, and toward what really shapes charter school enrollment in the first place: state policies.
Long before families decide whether to apply to a given charter school, a host of decisions are made by state lawmakers and charter authorizers about where schools can locate, whom they are allowed to serve, what services they must provide, and the types of recruitment efforts they pursue. These decisions have real, profound impacts on the makeup of the student body at charter schools.
Some policies, such as funding transportation for charter school students and requiring charters to provide free- or reduced-price meals, promote racial and socioeconomic diversity in charter classrooms. Other policies, such as prohibiting charters from considering diversity in their lottery systems or limiting their ability to enroll students across school district lines, set charters up to replicate or even exacerbate segregation in their communities.
There is no shortage of policies that states could adopt to encourage diversity in their charter schools. Unfortunately, states across the board are failing to do so. In a new study for The Century Foundation, we analyze charter school laws and regulations in every state where they currently exist (43 states, plus D.C.).
Of the ten policies we identified as most supportive of integration, we found that states had fewer than half in place, on average. Several states, including Michigan, Oregon and Virginia, have adopted two or fewer of the policies.
Given the lack of support for charter diversity in state law, it should come as no surprise that charters are often fueling segregation in practice. Our research into school-level demographics confirms as much: In more than one-third of states, charter schools had a negative effect on racial integration in all five counties with the largest charter enrollments. Only a handful of states showed charters having an overall positive impact on integration.
There are, however, a few bright spots — for instance, the growing national momentum for school integration, even among charters. Last year, we identified more than 1,000 charter schools that showed some consideration of diversity in their school model, and nearly 1,500 schools that met our criteria for medium or high diversity in enrollment. While these schools represent only a fraction of the roughly 5,700 charters nationwide, they make clear that charter schools, when done right, can — and increasingly do — serve as catalysts for school integration.
The politics of charter schools also present unique opportunities, as states must pass laws that allow them to open, and then determine their funding and set accountability mechanisms. School integration advocates can build bridges with proponents of school choice, two groups that often sit at opposite ends of the political spectrum, to ensure that if and when charters expand, they do so equitably and with diversity as a guiding principle.
The typical debate over whether charter schools are, all things considered, “good” or “bad” is misguided. The reality is that charters are here to stay: they currently enroll six percent of all public school children, and are only growing in number.
More importantly, charters hold the potential to help reverse longstanding and entrenched patterns of segregation, in communities in every corner of the country. Realizing that potential should no longer be the sole responsibility of parents and school leaders. State policymakers have the power to ensure that charter schools are inclusive of students from all backgrounds. It’s time they use it.
Halley Potter is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, and a former teacher at a charter school in Washington, D.C. She is the co-author of “Scoring States on Charter School Integration.”