National dialogue around charter schools often ignores local context. Consider Durham, North Carolina, where I have taught for the last 16 years in the traditional public school system.
Historically, the City and the County of Durham had two public school districts. Under court order, they were formally desegregated in 1970, triggering some White flight from the city to the county and establishing essentially two parallel systems. In 1992, the two districts merged and through a variety of measures—magnet programs, equitable funding, new school construction and redistricting, urban planning and housing programs—the community successfully diversified most of its schools.
While Durham has its own unique story of segregation and desegregation (check out this excellent documentary), it is representative of many Southern cities each with their own equally complex story. Throughout the early and mid-2000’s, Durham Public Schools (DPS) worked to maintain the delicate balance necessary in a diverse Southern school system. They identified achievement gaps and worked aggressively to address them.
That began to change in 2007, as the number of charter schools increased, and accelerated in 2011 when the state cap on charters was lifted and a number of steps were taken by state lawmakers to loosen oversight of charters.
In North Carolina, the state authorizes charters with no input from the local districts. There are no guidelines to ensure that charter enrollment mirrors the diversity of the surrounding community. Charter schools are also not required to provide transportation or meals. Even the National Association of Charter School Authorizers has expressed concern about charter policy in the state.
As a result of these policies, charter schools in the state are more segregated than traditional public schools. Researchers at Duke University have pointed out that 20 percent of all charter schools in the state are 90 percent or more White. Durham, a district with less than 40,000 school-aged children, now has 13 charter schools with number 14 scheduled to open this fall and number 15 already approved for the future.
The net result of the growth in charters is that they have concentrated poorer children of color in the district schools and complicated district planning with unanticipated student movement. According to the 2010 census, 40 percent of Durham County’s population is White.
As of last school year, only 18 percent of Durham Public School students were White. Meanwhile, four Durham charter schools are 54-67 percent White. Essentially, since the growth of charter schools beginning in the 2007-08 school year, approximately 1200 White students have disappeared from Durham Public Schools.
Both research and anecdotal evidence tells us that White parents prefer schools where their child will be in the majority, often as a more important factor than school quality. Research by Helen Ladd at Duke University on White parents in the state found that a 20 percent Black population was the threshold that White parents preferred.
Three of the four majority White charter schools are not part of a charter management chain. They are grassroots charters started by the local community. Some associated with some of those charters have expressed a seemingly honest desire for a more diverse student body but are unable or unwilling to address the underlying reasons why many families of color do not consider the school a viable option. It is notable that the other nine charter schools in the county are a majority students of color.
What Parents Are Looking For
Of course, the reasons behind all parents’ school choices are complex. I know this first hand as the magnet coordinator at my school where I work directly with parents involved in the school choice process. They look for convenience; they look for “fit;” they are often far more concerned about social aspects of the school than the quality of instruction. At the same time, I routinely hear White parents make coded statements that expose unconscious racism and both Black and White parents express unconscious classism.
Many White and middle-class parents are looking for rich, progressive learning environments for their children, something they often wrongly assume can’t be found in traditional public schools serving urban youth. They assume those schools provide only rigid and narrow approaches to education with an excessive focus on testing.
DPS already has a lot of choice built in the system. It has a liberal transfer policy and 40 percent of our schools are part of an award winning magnet program. Testing data shows that the four majority White charter schools do no better than most, and worse than a few, DPS schools. None of those four charter schools provides a specialized curriculum that is not already available within the district schools.
The Future Is Uncertain
While each student who leaves the district for a charter school takes with them their per-pupil spending, the district has been left with students who are more expensive to educate. In a district with a 30 percent child poverty rate, Durham Public Schools now has a 65 percent free- and reduced-lunch rate as well as higher concentrations of students with disabilities and English-language learners.
In a vicious, self-fulfilling cycle, the exodus of White and middle-class families may cause the district schools to look more like those very schools those families want to avoid. Concentrated poverty and disadvantaged students have impacted school test data and the district faces greater testing pressures.
The future holds even more uncertainty. While area charters still claim long waitlists, insiders express concerns of a charter market over saturation with some new charters failing to meet enrollment goals and charters investing more time and money into recruitment efforts. Area charter teachers also quietly express concern about practices of grade inflation and lack of rigor as charter schools try to keep students and families satisfied.
The intersection of race and school choice is complex. Given the known benefits of school integration for all students, it is time to consider policy approaches that ensure that school choice leads to more integration rather than contributing to more racial and economic isolation in our public schools.