Understanding School Choice through Race and Achievement

An increasingly large number of American students are turning away from traditional public schools in pursuit of a highly specialized alternative. As a result, the charter school population has tripled over the last 10 years. Today, more than three million students attend charter schools, compared to just 0.4 million in 2000. As the charter school population has increased, controversy surrounding these institutions has intensified. While the controversy surrounding charter schools impacts students across the country, these issues remain especially relevant to students of color. As the US continues to sink lower and lower in global academic achievement, the need for effective schools — charter or otherwise — becomes increasingly urgent. Charter schools should continue to serve their initial purpose — to act as centers for innovation — but must only be allowed to expand when high academic standards are consistently achieved.

In 2016, the NAACP called for a complete moratorium on charter school expansion, citing a less-than-desirable level of school operation transparency. The organization’s keen interest in the charter school debate is perhaps related to the fact that issues of school choice are inseparable from race. In many of the nation’s largest cities, a disproportionately large percentage of charter school students are Black and Latinx. Amid the discord surrounding the country’s evolving education system, and aside from the politics surrounding the issue, we must ask, what kinds of schools are best for America’s youngest and most vulnerable populations?

The relevance of charter schools for Black students may not depend on the charter concept itself, but on the ability of school leaders to establish consistently high-performing schools.

Charter schools are public schools governed by a group or organization under contract with the state or district. Although the first charter schools would not begin serving students for many years, the idea of chartering was first proposed in 1974 by University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Ray Budde. But, charter schools would become core components of the school choice movement. They possess increased autonomy and exemption from the strict rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools. They are only held accountable to the standards dictated in their charters. These “schools of choice,” which emerged in the 1990s, do not charge tuition and are not confined to enrolling students only from a particular area. Since then, some Black leaders like Geoffrey Canada have steadily supported the idea that charter schools should play a key role in revitalizing the education landscape for minority students. Today, almost 7,000 charter schools educate students in 43 states and the District of Columbia. These institutions were created to encourage innovation and for the overall benefit of public education. This influx of students is due in part to parental choice. Many parents feel that the one-size-fits-all mentality of traditional public schools does not cater to their child's needs. In addition, parents can view charter schools as a promising alternative when their zip codes otherwise force them to send their children to underperforming traditional public schools. Charter schools also may possess unique curriculums or special programs that cater to specific student demographics. For advocates of charter school expansion, Betsy DeVos is a beacon. The Trump-appointed Secretary of Education has steadily supported charter schools and funding for vouchers that are meant to allow students access to schools they would not typically have access to.

In 2019, the Los Angeles school board echoed the sentiment of the NAACP’s 2016 call for a moratorium. It seems hard to imagine why these bodies would oppose what appears to be a great equalizer for our education system.

In reality, it’s hard to determine how effective charter schools are in delivering on their promises.

At best, Charter school performance is mixed. Research by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes suggests that only a small percentage of students perform better after enrolling in a charter school. Overall, 17 percent of charter school students outperform than their counterparts on math assessments in traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter school students scored significantly worse. The largest share of students enrolled in charter schools — 46 percent — showed math scores at a level indistinguishable from their peers in traditional public schools.

However, gaining an accurate measure of charter school performance is complex. For example, while a 2015 report by Forbes acknowledged that charter and traditional public school performance was generally similar, the author pointed out that charter schools have steadily produced better outcomes for students in poverty. In addition, a study from the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas claimed that charter schools are typically able to do more with less funding, and thus provide a better return-on-investment per dollar.

The issue of funding has consistently complicated the controversy surrounding charter school expansion. Supporters of traditional public schools often assert that charter schools take money and resources away from traditional institutions. Adversaries of charter schools claim the financial impact of charter schools is similar to that of school vouchers--another major component of the school choice movement. These government issued vouchers allow students to leave their neighborhood public schools in order to attend a private, home, or religious school at a subsidized rate. In February 2019, Secretary DeVos announced a plan to support the nation’s only federal school voucher program. Critics of vouchers believe the program funnels money to private schools at the expense of public schools, but supporters laud the initiative for providing families with more autonomy and choice in their child’s education.

Race is a major factor in the divisiveness surrounding charter schools. In 2017, the Associated Press found that charter schools are the most segregated schools in the country. Seventeen percent of charter schools are at least 99 percent minority, compared to just four percent of traditional public schools. In a nation that has long since denounced racial segregation in public spaces, these statistics are troubling. However, a more recent study offers some glimmer of hope. A 2019 study showed that compared to traditional public schools, charter schools were 50 percent more likely to pair Black students with Black teachers. These trends are likely to produce positive outcomes. Studies have shown that Black students are more likely to attend college if they are taught by Black teachers during their earliest school years. This is certainly a silver lining.

About the Author

Niara Savage is a Fisk University student and a political correspondent for The Nashville Voice online newspaper. Her debut novel, The Killing of Gregory Noble, was published in 2018 and explores American police brutality. She is passionate about social justice issues relating to education and healthcare, and plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.