Analysis

Charters Schools ‘Segregated’? Children Only Attend If Their Parents Choose

That’s a challenge for opponents dredging up invalid Jim Crow associations

For years, the most common criticism of America’s public charter schools was that they cherry-picked the best students from conventional public schools, which opponents said accounted for charter’s superior academic performance.

But now a new criticism of charters has emerged, and it undermines the “cream of the crop” accusation. The charge now is that charter schools disproportionately attract minority students, compared to conventional public school districts. Attaching the loaded word “segregated” to trends in charter school enrollment inevitably evokes associations with pre-civil rights era racial discrimination.

“Charter schools are among the nation’s most segregated,” The Associated Press reported, citing its own analysis.

Those trying conflate Michigan’s charter school movement with the segregation of the Jim Crow era face a challenge. It is minority parents who are sending their children to charter schools; they have a choice and have exercised it. Charter school opponents want to take that choice away.

Jim Crow-era racial segregation in schools was often based on government policy. Today, many U.S. school districts are segregated by geography, with children in minority neighborhoods attending largely minority schools.

Charter schools located in such areas draw from the same population. But children only attend a charter if that’s the option their parents choose. If a charter school’s enrollment is mostly minority children, it’s only because their parents chose that school.

In Michigan, charter schools are more likely to be located in areas serving large minority populations, and so they draw far more minority students than the statewide average for public schools. According to the state of Michigan, 32.5 percent of charter school students are white, while 70.5 percent of students in conventional public schools are white.

The cities of Flint and Detroit illustrate the popularity and purpose of charter schools in Michigan.

A 2017 report released in October by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools showed that Flint ranked No. 2 and Detroit was No. 3 in the country for the percentage of students who attend charter schools.

In Flint, 5,780 students, or 55 percent of students, attend charter schools, while 4,810 students attend the local school district.

In Detroit, 50,460 students, or 53 percent, attend charter schools, and 44,890 attend the local school district. Detroit’s traditional public school district has been found year after year to be among the worst academic performers in the nation.

Detroit and Flint account for 38 percent of Michigan’s total of 146,140 charter school students. Flint’s population is 37 percent white while Detroit's population is 9.5 percent white.

“Michigan’s charter schools are primarily located in communities and neighborhoods where the traditional public schools have been failing students, and those communities tend to be in urban areas,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, in a statement. “That’s why the percentage of minority students in charter schools is so high. By their very nature, charter schools are the most open and welcoming of all public schools. Every charter school in the state is open to every student in the state. There are no enrollment barriers if a parent decides to choose a charter school. We take everyone, and we educate everyone. Michigan charter schools look like the communities in which they’re located.”