In its landmark Brown v. Board of Education
decision in 1954 [1
], the United States Supreme Court powerfully concluded that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ had no place. Further, “separate educational facilities,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for a unanimous court “are inherently unequal.” It has been over sixty years since the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown
to abolish the separate-but-equal legal doctrine and Jim Crow segregation by race. Yet, since that time, courts have allowed de facto
segregation to flourish [2
] and, as a result, schools in the United States are more segregated than they were at the time of the Brown
The resegregation of the United States, in contravention of Brown
, has occurred as a result of judicial retrenchment, but also due to other factors such as lax executive enforcement and White flight [4
]. Not incidentally, during the past two decades, schools in the United States have become increasingly segregated by race and class. According to the national data, nowhere is the problem more acute than in the nation’s charter schools [5
]. While public schools have generally acknowledged the problem and have usually agreed to remedies to address segregation [6
], some charter supporters have sought to downplay the issue, emphasizing the need to provide greater choice to low income and minority students as a means of achieving an educational equity in outcomes regardless of the racial composition of the school [7
]. In fact, some charter advocates have suggested that racial segregation within schools is acceptable if that comes as a natural by-product of parental choice [8
Established nearly a quarter-century ago, the first taxpayer supported, privately-operated charter schools were conceived of as learning laboratories that might inspire curricular innovation [9
]. In the past decade, proponents have reimagined charter schools as institutions of learning dedicated to providing poor and disadvantaged students with greater access to a high-quality education [10
]. These viewpoints mask the serious issues of inequity that remain outstanding, even after the Supreme Court first declared that segregated schools were inherently unequal. More than 60 years after Brown
, research confirms that charter and public schools servicing predominately poor students of color still do so with reduced resources, less academic rigor, in the form of limited access to advanced coursework, and largely untrained or inexperienced teachers [11
Purporting to address the educational opportunity gaps in the U.S., school choice proponents have linked market-based educational approaches to the legacy of the Civil Rights movement by framing their movement to foster “education choice” as the greatest Civil Rights issue of our time [12
]. However, substantiation on the claims of academic excellence proffered by charter advocates is mixed [13
]. Opponents have been quick to point out a number of flaws in the rhetoric including the high degree of segregation within such schools [16
]. They see the charter movement as a betrayal of the Brown
decision in abdicating, through privatization and private-control of education, an essential function of government to provide education to citizens as a public good [17
]. Critics have also been disapproving of the way in which the proliferation of charters has redirected crucial funding away from traditional public schools while, in many cases, reproducing and perpetuating the same racial imbalance Brown
sought to correct [11
According to US Department of Education, charters currently makeup only a small percentage of U.S. schools, approximately 7% [18
]. Prior research using national data has found that they are the most segregated of the nation’s schools, especially for Black and Latinx (We use Latinx as an attempt to decolonize the Spanish language and neutralize gender [19
]) students [20
]. Many of the nation’s charters can even be classified as “apartheid schools”—a term coined by UCLA Professor Gary Orfield for schools with a White student enrollment of 1 percent or less [21
]. School choice supporters often point out that while neighborhood segregation is out of their control—although in some states charter schools can use neighborhood borders to fix enrollment—the reality is that most charter schools have not prioritized or experienced desegregation as a desired outcome [22
]. While geography and residential segregation patterns contribute to the segregation in charter schools, in reality the schools with the most flexibility, hypothetically, to achieve significant diversity, have instead apparently chosen not to address the problem [23
]. Are charters more segregated than public schools at the local, state and national levels? If so, does local demography explain why charter schools feature more racial isolation than public schools? The answers to these questions are clear in this study—national, state, and local data indicate that the charter industry has a segregation problem in the US and it is not simply explained away by locality or demography.
3.1. Descriptive Analyses
In this study, we conducted descriptive analyses of publicly available school-level Common Core Data (CCD), from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The US Department of Education’s CCD is a comprehensive, annual, national database of all public elementary and secondary schools and districts. The wealth of information gathered in the CCD presents the opportunity to examine segregation at the local, state and national levels. The most recent data available at the time of writing was for 2015–2016.
We modeled our descriptive analysis tables and recoded the CCD into categorical variables in similar fashion to update and compliment earlier research examining segregation in charters and public schools previously conducted by Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, and Wang (2011). We began our work by recoding CCD variables to represent school-level proportions of White and non-White students. Utilizing the SPSS recode variable feature, we aggregated students in each school into categorical variables denoting school-level non-White majorities (i.e., 99%–100% non-White, 90%–90% non-White, etc.). We used [5
] to define the term intense segregation as 90% or more non-White in a school.
We compared the intensity of racial segregation in charter and public schools at the local, state and national levels. In our first analysis, we compare the national percentage of public and charter school students in segregated non-White schools (N = 91,320) by race/ethnicity. In our second analysis, we aggregated data at the state-level (N = 43) using Excel pivot tables for White, Black and Latinx students to understand the proportion that are “intensely segregated” in each state’s charter and public schools. Notably, not all states were included in the analyses because charter school data is not available in all 50 states for 2015–2016, as eight states did not allow charter schools (Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia). In our third analysis, we used Excel pivot tables to aggregate data for US cities with the largest number of students enrolled in charters (N = 50) to compare intense segregation at the local level for charter and public schools. In our fourth descriptive analysis, we examined segregation at the school-level using the CCD school level variable (high school, middle, elementary, and multilevel) and also created and used a majority non-White dichotomous variable in a crosstabs analysis to compare proportions of segregation in charter and public schools (N = 91,320). The final descriptive analyses were also undertaken using crosstabs to consider proportion of segregation for a dichotomous majority Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) variable and a dichotomous majority non-White variable at the national level (N = 84,477).
3.2. Multivariate Linear Regression
We also conducted an inferential analysis to understand the segregation of students in U.S. schools. In a multivariate linear regression we calculated the relationship between a school-level percent White dependent variable tabulated from the 2015–2016 CCD for all public and charter schools and percent White in a geographic area and school type as the predictor variables. To include local ethnoracial demographics from the local level in the model, we used SPSS to match ZIP Code Tabulation Areas (ZCTAs) to the school location zip code in the CCD. ZCTAs are calculated by the US Census Bureau to be generalized areal representations of zip code areas. We included school type by using the dichotomous CCD variable denoting charter or public school (N
= 89,189). Our basic linear regression model is,
Yi = β0 + β1X1 + β2X2 + ε
In summary, the following variables were included as independent variables in the multivariate linear regression: percent White at the local level and school type (charter and public). The dependent variable is percent White at the school-level.
Of note, in this study we refer to charters and public schools as different entities. Charter schools reimagine public education into private functionalist conceptions of schooling [50
]. To that point, Miron and Nelson [50
] argued that charters should not be understood as public schools. The traditional definition of public is the formalist definition, which focuses on issues of control and ownership. According to this definition, “a school (or other institution) is public if it is owned or controlled by citizens or their duly elected representatives” [50
]. As a result, in this study we do not refer to charters as public. Charter schools, which are overseen privately, do not align with this conception of public, or necessarily primarily focus on the common good. Schooling is reclassified in market-based education reform as an individualistic commodity and then an inadvertent manifestation of the common public good.
4.1. National Level Analyses
The 2015–2016 CCD show that higher percentages of charter school students of every race attend intensely segregated schools (99%–100%) and less attend predominately White schools (0%–50%) than do their same-race peers in neighborhood public schools (see Table 1
). Nationally, the higher levels of segregation for charter school students is particularly noticeable for Black students, who are more than three times as likely to attend racially isolated charter schools. Also, Latinx students are more than twice as likely to attend racially isolated charter schools when compared to neighborhood public schools.
Thirty percent of Black students in charter schools attended 90%–99% non-White schools in 2015–2016. Frankenberg et al. [5
] found that the segregation of Black students has been increasing since 1990 across the country and reached its highest level in nearly four decades. Approximately ten years later, the segregation of Black students in charter schools continue to outpace neighborhood public schools. Charter schools enroll about 31% more in schools that are 90%–100% non-White (see Table 1
). The percentage of Black charter students are in racially isolated non-White schools (69% in 2015–2016) has remained stubbornly high over the last two decades as Frankenberg et al. [5
] relayed that 70% of Black students in charter schools were in 90%–100% non-White schools in 2000–2001.
Charter segregation has increased for Latinx students since 2000. In 2015–2016, 56% were in schools with 90% or more non-White compared to about half in 2007–2008. Further, more than half of charter and public school students from Black, Latinx and Asian American backgrounds attended predominantly non-White schools. Also, a higher percentage of Black, Latinx and Asian American students were in 50%–100% non-White charter schools than in predominantly non-White public schools (see Table 1
). In the case of Black and Latinx, about 90% charter students were in segregated non-White schools. Notably, like their public school counterparts, Asian American charter school students were the least likely of all non-White students to be enrolled in segregated non-White schools.
Many charter students attended schools where 99% or more of the students were Non-White. About two-fifths of Black charter school students attended such extremely segregated non-White schools, a percentage which was the highest of any other ethnoracial group, and more than three times as high as Black students in public schools. Latinx charter students were more than twice as likely to be in these almost totally segregated non-White schools. Asian American students were considerably more likely to attend virtually all (99% or more) non-White charter schools than were their same race peers in public schools.
In the 2015–2016 CCD data, Native Americans were nearly equally segregated in charter and public schools. About 25% of Native American students were segregated in schools that were 90% or more non-White students compared to 29% in charter schools. About 60% of Native American students attended majority non-White schools in both the public and charter school sectors. Finally, 10% of Native American students were intensely segregated in public schools that were 90% or more non-White compared to 13% of charter school students.
4.2. State Level Analyses
An intriguing dimension of this higher segregation of students in charter schools was the extent to which the gap between charter and public manifests in different states relative to ethnoracial demographics (see Table 2
). For example, Connecticut and Mississippi were both in the top five largest gaps for White, Latinx and Black students (see Table 3
). Mississippi exhibited the largest gap for Latinx and White students while Connecticut was the topmost for Black students. Minnesota (Latinx and Black), Illinois (Latinx and White) and Tennessee (Black and White) showed the largest gaps between intensely segregated charter and public schools for two of the three groups.
At the state level, Virginia and Hawaii had the smallest gaps in terms of a heavy concentration. that favored charter schools—in those states public schools had heavier concentrations of segregation. Nevada (Latinx and White), Kansas (Latinx and Black) showed the smallest gaps between intensely segregated charter and public schools for two of the three groups. Notably, there are smaller gaps between intensely segregated White and non-White schools overall—only Hawaii exhibited a double digit gap (19%) signifying that public schools were more intensely segregated than charter schools.
4.3. City Level Analyses
Reflecting national and state trends, in the top 50 cities with the largest charter enrollments, higher percentages of charter students were attending segregated non-White schools than urban students in public schools (see Table 4
). The largest difference between the percent of students attending intensely segregated non-White schools were Cincinnati (69%), Rochester (63%), Minneapolis (57%), Kansas City (57%) and Camden (49%). The level of segregation in charter schools in the cities with the largest charter-public difference ranged from 81% to 98% of students in the charter sector compared to 19 to 49% of public school students attending intensely segregated schools.
Forty-two of the nation’s top 50 cities serving the most charter students had lower percentages of students intensely segregated in their public schools (see Table 4
). However, there were 8 cities where CCD showed that public schools were more intensely segregated than charter schools. The choice of White students to attend charters relative to other urban areas may explain why public schools were more segregated and charter schools less segregated in some cities. About half of White students in Atlanta and Homestead, a quarter in Phoenix, and a fifth in Tucson attended charter schools. Other potential explanations could be that charter schools are serving as havens for students trying to avoid segregation in public schools. For example, Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) was placed under court ordered desegregation in 1976 and LAUSD is currently under a voluntary order with the US Department of Education from 2008 and 2013. Also, the difference could be explained by the preference of students in those cities to attend charter schools with either larger proportions of White or non-White students. Phoenix and Atlanta had the first and third, respectively, highest enrollments of White students in charters in the United States.
New Orleans appears to be a different case altogether. In 2003, the Louisiana legislature created the Recovery School District (RSD). With this law, schools that did not meet “minimum academic standards” were to be taken over by the state. Soon after Hurricane Katrina, in November 2005, the Louisiana legislature passed Act 35. The new law lowered the academic criteria that made a school eligible for charter takeover and empowered the state to reconstitute more than 100 “low performing” public schools. The RSD was given the vast majority of New Orleans public schools, leaving just a few schools to be run by the Orleans Parish School Board. Ten years after Katrina, about 97% of White, 91% of Black and 96% of Latinx students attend a charter school in the city of New Orleans. That meant only about 170 White students, 120 Latinx and 3500 Black students attended public schools in the city in 2015–2016 (results not shown). The few public schools that remained (i.e., Bethune, Franklin elem., Jackson, McDonogh and McMain) are intensely segregated and serve primarily Black students).
Several California cities in the CCD have a negative charter-public difference when comparing students attending intensely segregated non-White schools. Stockton is an interesting case because the schools there were required by court order to desegregate in 1974. The CCD shows that charters in Stockton are about 16% less intensely segregated than the public schools. While Orfield and Ee [3
] found that Stockton is one of California’s least segregated metro areas, there are clearly remnants of the purposeful segregation in the city as 61.7% of students are still attending public schools that are intensely segregated non-White schools. Stockton is your classic impoverished, overwhelmingly minority school system. They found,
“The [W]hites and Asians [Americans] who remain in the Stockton school district on average attend schools with more than two-thirds combined enrollment of Latin[x], [B]lacks, and [Native Americans].”
Orfield and Ee [3
] also relayed that the most segregated districts in California are located in the Los Angeles-Inland Empire Region—which explains why students attending charter schools in Inglewood (8%) and Los Angeles (1.6%) that are only minimally less segregated than public schools. One notable caveat, the data in Inglewood show the scale of the difference—only about 450 students attended non-intensely segregated charter schools.
shows the demographics of charter and public schools by level in US when non-White proportions are combined. As much as 43% of all public schools in US are majority non-White compared to 65% of charter schools. As a result, the majority of charter schools across the nation are majority non-White. For public schools, the highest levels of racial isolation (46%) in terms of majority non-White status are at the primary grades. At approximately 77%, the greatest racial isolation occurs at the middle school level for charter schools. Our analysis also shows that more public multilevel schools are majority non-White compared to charters as nearly half (44%) of multilevel public schools are majority non-White compared to 17% of charter schools.
The CCD also show that double segregation by race/ethnicity and FRL is still an issue in the United States for charter and public schools (see Table 6
). Of public schools that are majority FRL, 34% (26,919) of them are also majority non-White. For charter schools that are majority non-White and FRL, 49% (3,008) of them are doubly segregated. By comparison, the difference between charter and public schools that are double segregated by majority non-White and majority FRL is 15%. As a result, the national incidence of double segregation by majority FRL and majority non-White is higher in charters than public schools which reaffirms earlier findings by Frankenberg et al. [5
4.4. Geographic Area Analysis Considering Ethnoracial Demographics
Considering our descriptive analysis of the CCD, segregation at the local, state, and national levels is an issue in public and charter schools. Furthermore, the data show that segregation is particularly intense for charter schools. In response to similar findings from prior studies, one of the arguments commonly heard in the public discourse regarding charters and segregation is that charters are more segregated because they are located in neighborhoods that are more segregated [7
]. To consider the validity of this argument, we concluded our analyses by conducting a multivariate linear regression for the national universe of charter and public schools. In our analysis we controlled for school type (charter and public) and aggregate race/ethnicity at the local level. The dependent variable is percent White at the school-level.
The coefficient for local percent White is 0.988 (p
< 0.001; Table 7
). So for every unit increase in percent White in a geographic area, there is a nearly one percentage point increase in percent White in a school predicted, holding school type constant. As would be expected, the more White a community is, the larger the percentage of White children in a school. For charter schools, controlling for local ethnoracial demographics, we expect a−1.255 percentage point decrease in the percent White in a school. Since the predicted percent White is 1.255 (p
< 0.001; Table 7
) percentage points lower in charter schools compared to public schools—considering all schools in the US—the data show that charters are more likely to be segregated than public schools even when controlling for local ethnoracial demographics.
Now is a watershed moment for school choice as the current political context in Washington, D.C. finds school choice in a position of favor with the presidential regime. Initially, President Donald Trump proposed spending $
20 billion on vouchers and charters during his campaign [51
]. Although spending at that level has not yet been realized, it is well established that school choice and charter schools have the unequivocal support of President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos [52
]. Additionally, not only has Secretary Betsy DeVos generally scaled back the U.S. Department of Education’s federal oversight of Civil Rights [53
], but former Attorney General Jeff Sessions specifically sought to limit the federal role in diversifying and integrating K-12 [35
Given the increased attention and focus on charter schools by President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as an alternative to neighborhood public schools and the retrenchment of federal engagement in Civil Rights, diversity, and integration—it is important to analyze whether or not charter schools have continued to be more segregative than neighborhood public schools. In summary, our findings using national, state and local level analyses illustrate that students who attend charter schools are more likely to find themselves more racially isolated when compared to their public school counterparts. Nationally, we find that higher percentages of charter school students of every race attend intensely segregated schools and less predominately White schools than do their same-race peers in public schools. As much as 43% of all public schools in the US are majority non-White compared to 65% of charter schools. For public schools, the highest levels of racial isolation (46%) in terms of majority non-White status are at the primary grades. At approximately 77%, the greatest racial isolation occurs at the middle school level for charter schools. We also find that the national incidence of double segregation by majority Free and Reduced Lunch and majority non-White is higher in charters than public schools. A majority of states have at least half of their Black students and a third of states’ Latinx charter students are enrolled in intensely segregated schools. At the city level, we find higher percentages of charter students were attending intensely segregated schools than urban students enrolled in public schools. Additionally, considering the universe of all charter and public schools in the US—our multivariate regression shows that charters are more likely to be segregated than public schools even when controlling for local ethnoracial demographics.
As evidenced by Plessy v. Ferguson
]—the decision the U.S. Supreme Court issued in 1896 that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality—racial and economic segregation are a mainstay in American history and our nation’s schools are no different. In fact, Joseph Oluwole and Preston Green [55
] argued that Black and Latinx children are being educated in charter schools that are both segregated and unequal in a Plessy
fashion. According to their argument, charter school students’ experience is similar to the one received by Black students in the aftermath of the Plessy
case. If handled correctly, charter schools could have provided a tool for Black and Latinx children to attend diverse schools of excellence. However, their unregulated nature has enabled privately-managed entities to create segregated schools that also drain resources from neighborhood public school systems, thus creating a situation that is even worse than Plessy
Our mired struggle to provide equitable and equal access to quality education for all children in the US continues to remain outside of our collective grasp. Despite our best efforts, and some progress in decades past, our nation’s schools continue to be segregated not by the de jure segregation of pre-Brown, but by de facto segregation of choice post-Brown. This educational segregation exists across all types of schools but, as has been explored here, charter schools continue to be more segregative. Market-based school choice models, such as charters, have reimagined education as an individualistic commodity. Accordingly, if we are to conceive of schooling and education as an individualistic enterprise guided by free-market ideology, how will we then achieve the common good of integration?
As noted in this paper, school choice and charter school advocates have in recent years acknowledged that charters have generally acknowledge that charter schools are more segregated. The problem, however, is that the segregation is shrugged off or even celebrated because of an unwavering belief that integration is not an aspiration; rather, a functioning market that expands segregation for the sake of an ideological commitment to education reform, privatization, and private-control have become the goals. If we are to achieve the common good of integration, we must acknowledge the research that finds that not only are school choice schemes, like charter schools, impeding that goal, but we must also continue to assess the ideology and public discourse that shrugs at the apparent reality of enhanced segregation in charter schools.