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The Learning Curve: A Local Look at Charters and Segregation

One big criticism leveled at charter schools is that they exacerbate school segregation. But there are a few big reasons why it’s hard to measure whether that’s happening in San Diego.

The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org.

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The NAACP, the country’s oldest civil rights organization, made headlines last summer when it called for a moratorium on charter school expansion. Now, the group is holding a series of town hall meetings across the country, including one scheduled for later this month in Pasadena.

Learning-Curve-sq-01-300x300The group wants charter schools to be subject to the same reporting and transparency requirements as traditional schools. A resolution signed by NAACP leaders also suggested charter schools are worsening segregation by attracting high-achieving students and leaving hard-to-reach students in traditional schools. Indeed, charter schools around the country have been accused of “creaming” –admitting high-performing students and excluding those more difficult to teach – expelling students for minor infractions and exacerbating segregation.

The NAACP’s move sparked immediate pushback. In September, a group of black leaders sent a letter to the NAACP board members blasting the resolution for cherry-picking “debunked claims about charter schools” and ignoring research that shows charter schools have been particularly effective options for black and low-income students.

Opponents have lobbed such criticisms similar to the NAACP’s at charter schools for years. But the fact that NAACP leaders co-signed the arguments lent new credibility to the claims. And Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education, has energized the debate over school choice.

There’s a lot wrapped up in the list of criticisms NAACP leveled at charter schools. So let’s take one of them – whether charter schools exacerbate segregation – and unpack it with from a local perspective.

Here are five reasons why it’s difficult to measure whether this is happening in San Diego.

Diverse schools are hard to establish.

Segregation, insofar as it’s used to describe schools, goes back to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ruled that separate public schools for black and white students was inherently unequal.

Today researchers measure segregation in part by looking at racial isolation, or the degree to which students from one race are exposed to others. Evidence indicates that students who attend integrated schools make academic gains and pick up social skills that help them thrive later in a diverse workplace.

But if diverse schools are the goal, the makeup of San Diego schools makes racial balance tricky to achieve. Today, San Diego Unified’s student population is 47 percent Latino, 23 percent white, 8.9 percent black and 8.4 percent Asian.

In this context, a diverse school wouldn’t need a perfect racial balance, but would more or less reflect the district’s overall demographics. Still, the fact that white students are concentrated in schools north of Interstate 8, and black students south of the 8, makes it difficult to achieve diversity in schools across the district. And that’s generally true for charter schools and traditional schools alike.

On the other hand, a charter school like High Tech High has used a weighted lottery system, based on student ZIP code, which allows it strike a racial and socioeconomic balance similar to San Diego Unified’s. In this way, you could argue High Tech High is actually promoting racial integration, not hurting it.

Research is mixed or inconclusive.

It’s one of the more common questions readers ask me about charter schools: What’s their impact on segregation?

As noted by The 74, the research is mixed: “In certain states, like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Indianapolis, and Texas, charter schools are to some degree worsening segregation. But charters may be improving integration in cities like New York City and Little Rock, Arkansas. An analysis of national data showed no correlation between an increase in charter school enrollment and an increase in racial segregation.”

Closer to home, there haven’t been any comprehensive studies done specifically on San Diego schools. The closest is a 2010 report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project that looked at California schools. San Diego is mentioned in the report, but the racial differences between charters and traditional schools were slight.

Affluent families are more likely to take advantage of school choice.

San Diego Unified created its first official integration plan in 1977, as an outcome of Carlin v. Board of Education, a lawsuit that forced the district to desegregate its schools.

Since then, integration efforts have consisted of three major prongs: magnet schools, which draw students from all neighborhoods; bus routes, which mostly took kids to schools in the north and west; and a school choice program that allows students to transfer to schools outside their neighborhoods if spots are available.

But in 2009, when UCSD researchers studied the impact of these efforts, they found school choice actually worked against integration. That is, even when parents from all backgrounds can apply to send their kids to schools in different neighborhoods, white and affluent parents are more likely to take advantage of it.

That could be related to a lack of transportation – an obstacle low-income parents are more likely to face. Either way, school choice further muddies the waters and makes it difficult to measure the impact of charter schools on integration.

There are different kinds of segregation.

Racial segregation tends to get the most attention. But some experts say the single most powerful predictor of racial gaps in educational achievement is segregation by poverty.

Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, says California is the worst state in the country when it comes to segregation for Latinos, who often attend schools where students are triply segregated by race, class and language.

If we say integration matters, then it matters not just for race, but for poverty and language, too. But there’s no research to show us what San Diego schools look like when we measure for class or language – neither for charters nor traditional schools.

Some segregation is intentional.

On paper, The O’Farrell Charter School is highly segregated. About 84 percent of students are black or Latino. Only 2 percent are white. Seventy-two percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

Yet, when I visited O’Farrell this year, parents raved about the degree to staff members made them feel welcome and supported their children. They described O’Farrell teachers and principals as being more responsive to their child’s background or race, compared with what they experienced in traditional schools.

To criticize O’Farrell for segregating students is to dismiss the parents and students who see the school as a safe harbor from nearby traditional schools. And it overlooks the fact that O’Farrell students are outperforming those at other schools in southeastern San Diego.

“It is not segregation when families of marginalized communities enroll their kids in schools they think are going to give them a fighting chance to learn. That’s not segregation, said Chris Stewart, a Minnesota-based education writer and former member of the Minneapolis school board. “Segregation is saying: white-only, black-only, and if you’re black we’re going to assign you to the worst schools, the schools with run-down facilities. That’s what segregation is.”

San Diego Unified has not prioritized integration.

Charter schools and segregation may be a hot topic elsewhere, but locally, it doesn’t appear to be much of a priority for San Diego Unified.

In fact, San Diego Unified’s mission is to create a quality school in every neighborhood and keep kids in their neighborhood schools.

The problem is that San Diego neighborhoods are already segregated by race and income. And if every student attended his or her neighborhood school, San Diego schools could actually become more segregated.

Current school board members believe they can create quality schools in every part of town. But in a 2015 interview, Orfield told me he was skeptical they could pull it off.

“Everybody says they know how to do it. Everybody says they know how to make segregated schools equal. No school district in the country has ever done it, to the best of my knowledge,” he said.

VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.

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