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Posted at 1:17 PM ET, 02/ 9/2010

New study looks at segregation in charter schools

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Kevin G. Welner, professor of education policy and program evaluation in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and director of the Education and the Public Interest Center. He can be reached at

By Kevin G. Welner
The Washington Post published an article last Wednesday about a study from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles which analyzed charter schools across the country and found them to be substantially more racially isolated than traditional public schools. The study has received quite a bit of attention, as well as pushback from charter school advocates.

Today, CU-Boulder’s policy center, along with its partner policy center at Arizona State University (collectively, EPIC/EPRU) is releasing a study that, coincidentally, asks some of the same questions as the UCLA study did.

Our study provides a comprehensive examination of enrollment patterns in schools operated by private corporations and finds these schools to be segregated by race, family income, disabilities and English language learner status. As compared with their local public school districts, these schools operated by Education Management Organizations, or EMOs, are substantially more segregated, and the strong segregative pattern found in 2001 is virtually unchanged through 2007.

This new study, "Schools without Diversity: Education Management Organizations, Charter Schools, and the Demographic Stratification of the American School System," is written by Gary Miron, Jessica Urschel, and Elana Tornquist of Western Michigan University, and William Mathis of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Please find this new report on the web here. (

The fact that our conclusions are remarkably similar to the UCLA study is particularly noteworthy. The two studies, conducted independently using different data, different researchers and different methods, both found extensive segregation in charter schools.

This type of independent verification is extraordinarily important. It establishes that the findings are robust – are not just the result of one particular way of looking at the data. Together, these two new studies paint a powerful picture of charters adding to the school segregation caused by the nation’s highly segregated neighborhoods.

The EMO study is particularly important because the Obama administration has placed a great deal of faith in the scaling up of nonprofit EMOs (sometimes called Charter Management Organizations, or CMOs) as part of the administration’s turnaround strategy.

The findings of this new study suggest that these policies have the very real potential to be harmful to the nation’s social and educational interests.

Having just read the various responses to the UCLA study, allow me to pre-emptively address those concerns, which may also be raised in response to the EPIC/EPRU study:

1.Pointing to the segregation is in no way condemning the schools, teachers, or students at those segregated schools. Individually, these can be great schools. What these studies highlight is a policy shift away from the Brown v. Board of Education understanding and ambition. We’ve moved from “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” back to a version of Plessy’s “separate but equal,” generally stated as something like, “segregation doesn’t matter; what matters is that we hold every school accountable for excellence.”

2.While high-quality segregated schools – whether charters or not – deserve praise for their excellent academic outcomes, I am troubled by the abandonment of the diversity goal. Why, in reading the responses to the UCLA study, do I see so many people buying into a false dichotomy between excellence and diversity? We should approach charter schools with the foundational understanding that diversity and high achievement are mutually reinforcing and then structure our charter policies accordingly.

3.The reality is that charter schools as a whole do not appear to generate improved test scores. So, looking at these two new studies, it seems that we are getting the harms of segregation without any significant achievement benefits. Yet charters and choice are here to stay, so the questions we should be asking concern how to best structure choice policies to further both goals – diversity and excellence.

The UCLA Civil Rights Project offers several recommendations for restoring equity provisions and integration in charter schools. They include establishing new guidance and reporting requirements by the federal government; incorporating some features of magnet schools into charter schools; heightened enforcement of existing state-level legislation with specific provisions regarding diversity in charter schools; and monitoring patterns of charter school enrollment and attrition, focusing particularly on reporting the demographic information of charter school students on low-income and English Language Learning characteristics.

4.Both the EPIC/EPRU study and the UCLA study show racial stratification in both directions. That is, we’re seeing both “white flight” and “minority flight." Several comments I’ve seen therefore conclude that we’re attacking Latino and African American students for choosing non-diverse schools. Speaking for myself, I would never condemn a parent for making such a choice. If a parent perceives his or her best schooling option to be a segregated school, I would certainly hope that the segregation isn’t the reason for that conclusion. But ultimately I’m not in a position to question any parent’s choice. I should note that surveys consistently show that parents of all races state a preference for integrated schools, all else being equal. So what I do question are state policies that fail to create incentives for schools, including charter schools, to have that diversity.

Ultimately, I hope those who criticized the UCLA report and who might be tempted to criticize the new EPIC/EPRU report take a step back and consider the long-term benefits to the charter movement if it embraces reforms designed to create greater school-level diversity. Yes, these reports do raise serious concerns about the current situation, but they aren’t calling for charters to be abandoned. They are calling for meaningful reflection and change so that these schools can help move the country toward its ideals.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 9, 2010; 1:17 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Kevin Welner, Research  | Tags:  charter schools  
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We should approach charter schools with the foundational understanding that diversity and high achievement are mutually reinforcing and then structure our charter policies accordingly.

Time for a reality check. If you want to raise test scores which now mean you are doing a great job the easiest way is to screen your student population by race and economic status. I wish it was not so, or this easy, but it is.

Posted by: mamoore1 | February 9, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Welner - thank you for this. Now please go tell Obama. He says he makes decisions based on science and reason. I hope this means he can reverse a decision when new research indicates his initial reasoning was false. If not, we're wasting huge amounts of money on RttT and letting down our children. Again.

You and your colleagues in the academy have a responsibility to reach him with this message. I hope plans are underway now to do this.

Posted by: efavorite | February 9, 2010 7:51 PM | Report abuse

No disrespect intended, but if anyone really believes that Arne Duncan or President Obama would be swayed by either study isn't paying attention. The results and their damaging implications will get swept under the rug because the mainstream media will not give this critical information the attention it deserves. Duncan has carte blanche at the DOE because President Obama has given it to him. The "Yes we can" change that we voted for in essence has quickly morphed into "Yes we can" to privatization and corporate takeover of public schools.

Posted by: PGutierrez1 | February 9, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

What are children and families who live in already-segregated neighborhoods supposed to do when their neighborhoods are failing? I work at a charter school in DC--I don't exacly see an influx of new diverse neighbors moving in anytime soon, and the demographics of the nearest high school are almost identical (with the exception of Latino students, but that's because of the ELL services provided). If the charter school exists as an alternative to the local neighborhood school, are studies like these also implying that they should be attractive options for every student in the city? I have a hard time believing that it is the charter schools' job to offer an alternative for students in neighborhoods that they themselves didn't create.

Posted by: JustUs5 | February 9, 2010 8:22 PM | Report abuse

I see so many anecdotes about charter schools, even in the comments here. For every positive anecdote about charters there seems to be others with negative anecdotes.
It sounds like this study has tried to capture evidence across the nation. Anecdotes might be good to share with other parents who are thinking about a particular schools, but our government leaders need to have evidence about the impact of all our charter schools.

Posted by: 10101 | February 10, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

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