Education, News

UNC-Charlotte, UCLA Report: Charter schools driving segregation in Charlotte

A charter boom in the Charlotte area is spurring segregation in the city’s public school system, a new report from researchers at UNC-Charlotte and UCLA finds.

The report, released Tuesday by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project and professors from several UNC-Charlotte departments, concludes that rapid growth in the charter sector is having a deleterious effect on the state’s second-largest school district, exacerbating a trend of racially isolated schools.

Policy Watch reported on the district’s racial divisions back in 2016.

“Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools were once the nation’s bellwether for successful desegregation,” said Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, a UNC-Charlotte sociology professor who co-authored this week’s report. “Today, the district exemplifies how charter schools can impede districts’ efforts to resist re-segregation. This research has important implications not only for schools and communities in the Charlotte Mecklenburg region, but for the national debate over the growth and role of charter schools in our nation’s education system.”

The study comes amid a swift expansion of North Carolina charters since state lawmakers nixed a 100-school cap in 2011. Today, the state has more than 170 charters and Charlotte, in particular, has been a hotbed for school choice proponents. The city counts 36 charters in the region. And, according to this week’s report, area charters serve a disproportionately large share of white students.

The report says 16 charters are deemed “racially isolated white” and enroll more than 60 percent white students. Another six schools were considered “hyper segregated” and serve student populations that are less than 2 percent white.

Studies of K-12 education often connect segregated schools to disparities in education opportunities and performance.

From the report’s conclusions:

While market theories of choice anticipate that charters will positively influence public education, thwarting efforts to increase diversity surely is not amongst these expectations. Our case study of Charlotte illustrates how charter schools directly and indirectly undermine the capacities of CMS leaders to desegregate the public schools. When charters siphon off middle-class Asian, black, Hispanic, and white students and their funding, they directly make the task of (socioeconomic status) and racial desegregation mechanically more difficult.

School choice proponents point to charter schools as an essential tool for K-12 innovation and a necessary boon for parents. But critics blame charter growth for racial segregation trends and destabilizing K-12 funding. 

Also of interest, the report’s authors suggest that school choice proponents blunted efforts to cut out the district’s racial divisions in a 2017 student assignment plan.

This threat of flight to charters hovered over Mecklenburg County policy actors as they crafted Phase II of the 2017 assignment plan. CMS board members knew that aggressively pursuing SES desegregation policies that middle-class parents perceive as threatening access to and the quality of their neighborhood school may trigger exits from CMS. This possibility became central to the policy context in which CMS policy actors redesigned Phase II.

As a result, the report argues, the reassignment plan had a limited impact on high-poverty pockets in the school system.

From the report:

The vast majority of CMS schools and the students who attend them will not be affected by the redrawn attendance boundaries. The new assignment plan will affect approximately 7,000 students, or less than 5 percent of the district’s 147,000 students. The changes only modestly shift concentrations of poverty. Changes in catchment area boundaries will lower concentrations of poverty for only 21 of the district’s 75 schools with over 70 percent students on free or reduced lunch. Of the 21 schools projected to see improvements in (socioeconomic status) balance, many changes are inconsequential. For example, one middle school is projected to drop from 94% to 92% of students on free or reduced lunch.

Check back later for reactions from local leaders.

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