When a charter school opened near my house, many of our friends with school-age kids were excited. I kept hearing: “It’s so great. It’s like a private school without the tuition.”
At first I thought we were talking about achievement and opportunities, maybe the new building. But the more I heard those words, the more I thought they were code for something else. Did being “like a private school” mean having less demographic or socio-economic diversity?
So I did a bit of research into charter schools in North Carolina. There is statutory language designating that public charter schools must enroll any eligible student without discrimination. Unfortunately, a 2013 law softened the original requirement that charter schools were required to reflect the demographics of the district in which they were located. Charters are now required to “make efforts” to “reasonably reflect” those demographics.
Charters can’t deny entry to a student based on their race or religion or family income. But typical charter school policies may limit the type of students and families who apply. For instance, most charter schools don’t offer transportation, which can be a serious hurdle for poor and working class families.
Charters are also not required to participate in the free and reduced lunch program. Contracts requiring parents to volunteer a specific number of hours in schools, while laudable, may also deter lower-income or working class families from applying. Finally, the application process itself can be daunting, especially for families without access to computer resources or for families in which English is not spoken in the home.
There are wide variations in the demographics of charter schools. According to a 2014 report to the General Assembly, the overall racial makeup of charter schools is very similar to that of the public school population. This sounds like good news, but looking through charts of the racial composition of charter schools, I was struck by the number of charter schools that are dominated by one racial group.
This observation is backed by scholarly research. A 2013 study from Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy found that charter schools are much more likely than traditional public schools to be racially unbalanced. The authors found that more than 60% of charter school students attended a racially unbalanced school (one with less than 20% or more than 80% minority enrollment), while just 30% of regular public school students attended such a school.
As I looked through the data, I noticed an even more concerning statistic. Charter schools serve a much lower percentage of economically disadvantaged students than traditional public schools– just 39.6%, compared to 50% in all public schools.
The differences are particularly pronounced in some urban areas. In Wake County, 19% of charter school students are economically disadvantaged, compared to 34% of public school students. In Durham County, 37% of charter school students are economically disadvantaged, compared to 59% of public school students. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, 25% of charter school students are economically disadvantaged, compared to 54% of public school students. You see the trend.
This data, perhaps more than any other, points to a socio-economic separation that should concern anyone. Are charter schools the “new” private schools, separating students by race and class? Is that a strategy that serves our students, our communities or our future well?
Sara Lang has worked in North Carolina politics at the state, federal, and local levels for more than 15 years. A communications consultant, she lives in Cary with her husband, two young children, and a pampered dog.