Earlier this week, NBC News ran an article entitled “It’s like a black and white thing: How some elite charter schools exclude minorities.” The article focuses on Lake Oconee Academy (LOA), a charter school in Greensboro, Georgia. It makes the case that the school has intentionally excluded minority students while favoring wealthy, white families. The nation’s first charter school was designed to help students from disadvantaged communities achieve academic excellence. If charter schools really have become bastions for the elite, then they have strayed from their original purpose, and perhaps should be reexamined.
NBC describes the contrast between LOA’s piano lab and AP courses, with the other, less equipped public high schools in the community, pointing out that LOA’s student population is 73 percent white, compared with 12 percent of the students in the district’s traditional public high school.
The article lists a slew of possible reasons for this disparity, including transportation, cost of uniforms, and preference being given to children of board members, siblings of current students, and students living in preferred attendance zones, zones close to the school that are given preference when spots are being awarded through a lottery system. LOA recently announced that they would do away with preferred attendance zones.
As LOA and other charter schools are being criticized for being selective about enrollment, we should ask if this is really a fair critique. Ted Kolderie, one of the founders of the first charter school, stated in a 2017 interview with NPR: “Traditional district schools don't take everybody. Superintendents talk as if they do, but they only have to take the children of families who can afford to live in their district. There are all kinds of charters enrolling all kinds of kids. The strongest support for charters has been among parents who had never gone beyond a high school education. That's where the strongest preference remains.”
While traditional public school students in a district are usually assigned to a school based on which neighborhood they live in, students are able to attend a charter school in their district regardless of where in the district they live, though some schools give preference to students in the zones closest to the school. Most charter schools are also willing to enroll students from outside their school district, though in most states, charter schools prioritize enrollment for students who actually live in the district from which the school receives funding.
Furthermore, according to Niche.com, charter schools have a higher percentage of students of ethnic minorities than their traditional public school counter-parts.
Charter schools also have a higher percentage of students who are eligible for free lunch programs.
Technically, most charter schools have more open enrollment policies than traditional public schools, as well as a higher percentage of ethnic minorities and economically disadvantaged students, so what’s the issue here? Is there a lack of resources and accessibility that is intentionally or unintentionally keeping minority families out of certain charter schools?
If every community had the same resources and accessibility, then according to NBC’s assumptions, we should expect those schools to become increasingly diverse. But is this really the case?
The Dutch education system is set up in such a way that anyone can start a school, teaching from any religious perspective or educational perspective, and receive the same kind of government funding as the other schools in the area, provided that they meet certain educational requirements.
With this kind of equal accessibility, we should expect schools in the Netherlands to be highly diverse, right? Recent reports would suggest that this is not the case. Having such a variety of schools that are easily accessible has actually led to generally homogenous schools.
Similar trends can be found in the U.S. In Minnesota, for example, a closely watched lawsuit is heading to the state’s Supreme Court. The lawsuit (Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota) claims the state is not doing enough to enforce racial integration in some of metro’s racially homogenous school districts.
Educational freedom and freedom of association are highly valued in many Dutch and American communities. Dutch Educational Consultant Edith Hooge, in a report on education in the Netherlands states, “I do not believe in forcing people to integrate. School choice is a very good value. When you are dealing with your own child you always want the best. I do not expect the individual citizen to sacrifice their child’s education for an ideal. If you make the concentration schools attractive others will come.”
What do you think? Are we jumping to conclusions if we assume that the reason a lack of diversity in certain charter schools is racial bias? Are there other factors at play? Does expanded freedom of choice and accessibility lead to more, or less diversity in a school?
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Patience Griswold is a 2018 Alcuin Intern with Intellectual Takeout. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and spending time with family and friends.