Separate, Unequal: 700+ Public Charter Schools Are Whiter Than Their Districts

By Kenrya Rankin Jun 18, 2018

A new report delves into public charter school policies that segregate students by race.

Created via a partnership between nonprofit The Hechinger Report, The Investigative Fund, NBC Nightly News and, “It’s Like a Black and White Thing”: How Some Elite Charter Schools Exclude Minorities” examines 2015-2016 school year enrollment data (the latest available from the United States Department of Education) to pinpoint charter schools that have significantly Whiter populations than their surrounding public schools. Researchers found that at least 747 public charters in the nation fit that description, and at 115 of them, the percentage of White students is 20+ percentage points higher.

Author Emmanuel Felton writes:  


The 20-percentage-point difference has often been used in federal desegregation lawsuits as a measure for which schools are considered “racially identifiable.” These 115 charters, which together enroll nearly 48,000 children, were concentrated in just a handful of states. In 2016, California had 33 racially identifiable White charters, Texas was home to 19 and Michigan, 14.

In the broader group of 700+ schools, the differences in percentages range from less than 1 percent to 78 percent, and Felton writes that many of them have implemented policies—from expensive uniforms to no busing—that experts say effectively keep lower-income families from landing on their campuses. The report cites Lake Oconee Academy (62 percent gap) in Greensboro, Georgia, as an example.


The idea behind charters was to loosen rules and regulations hindering innovation. Many charters hire teachers who don’t belong to a teachers union or haven’t gone through a traditional teacher preparation program, for example. But some charters have also used their greater flexibility to limit which kids make it through the schoolhouse doors—creating exclusive, disproportionately White schools.




In its early years, Lake Oconee Academy created a priority attendance zone for the gated communities that surround it. This is legal in several states, allowing charters to pick the neighborhoods they want to serve. While these schools usually hold randomized admissions lotteries open to everyone in their school districts, families in preferred attendance zones get first dibs. Several of the 747 charters only offer their admissions materials in English, excluding immigrant families who speak other languages. (The ACLU of Arizona found that 26 percent of the charter schools it contacted didn’t provide admissions materials in Spanish, despite the prevalence of Spanish speakers in the state.) And some of these charters pressure parents to volunteer a certain number of hours, which can be hard on working families.


“What the charter schools will say is, ‘Hey we’re innocent, it’s the parents who choose. We can’t help what they choose,’” said Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University who has spent almost two decades studying charter schools. “But when you look at marketing materials and other things, the school is obviously sending messages about their school and what type of students they want.”

Read the full article to find out what some districts—and concerned parents—are doing to close the gap.