Charter Schools Won't Solve Segregation

One of the things charter school advocates like to point out is that neighborhood schools are class-segregated because access to them depends upon your ability to secure housing in the neighborhood. Jonathan Chait, for instance, had a recent post about this. Presumably this is meant to be a knock against neighborhood schools in comparison to charter schools. But charter schools, as far as I can tell, don't do anything to reduce class-based segregation and advocates for charter schools are actually very aggressive about pointing this out.


One of the flash points in the charter school debate concerns the degree to which charter school administrators cherry-pick their students. The way this debate usually unfolds (Chait's somewhat naive "it's against the rules for charters to do that" argument notwithstanding) is one side provides specific evidence of charter schools skimming. Then the other side claims that any skimming that is going on is very limited and uses as evidence for this the fact that, overall, the schools are very demographically similar to nearby neighborhood schools.

As a rebuttal, I am not sure it really answers the criticism. After all, within any given demographically similar group, it is possible to isolate a subgroup that is disproportionately made up of the higher-performers in the larger group. Even in a school made up entirely of rich white students, there are some students who perform better than others.

For our purposes here though, it doesn't matter what you think of the success of the rebuttal because the underlying factoid of the rebuttal is clearly that charter schools are replicating the exact same segregation as neighborhood schools. Sometimes the charter school advocates seem downright proud of this, at least in the context of boasting about how their test scores stack up against richer and whiter schools.

Poor Methods

One of the other flash points in the charter school debate concerns the harsh and testing-heavy schooling methods some charter schools appear to use. For instance, in the Times profile of Success Academy schools, we learn that students spend what seems like an extraordinary amount of time on test prep, that the schools cut out subjects that aren't tested, that students are publicly shamed for having low scores, and that students are drilled so hard that some literally piss their pants. Other charter school descriptions leave one with the impression that at least some charter schools operate like silent boot camps.

One rebuttal to this argument is that it just isn't true, that reports of this sort are exaggerated or only picking up the worst isolated incidents. I don't know what's going on (who does?) in aggregate in these schools, so this is at least a viable possibility.

But there is another rebuttal you often see. According to this rebuttal, these methods are actually justified because they are necessary to get poor kids to learn. They aren't necessary to get all kids to learn (the rich can still have relaxed schools with less testing, less pressure, and more subject diversity), but poor kids need the harsher methods because of the difficulties that come along with being poor. Josh Greenman's string of tweets in response to the above-quoted Times article is the latest person I've seen make this argument.

What's interesting about this position is that it's actually an argument for class-based schooling segregation. At its core, the argument says that through our imposition of very inegalitarian economic institutions, we have created socioeconomic disparities so great that children of different classes cannot be taught together. The rich kids need to go to schools that use the Rich Methods while the poor kids need to go to schools that use the Poor Methods.

If that's true, then that means that neighborhood schools are actually good, at least insofar as they rightly segregate students based on class (they may still be bad because they do that without then adopting the Poor Methods). So, the charter school advocate at this point has somewhat amusingly come full circle on segregation. They start out as horrified about segregation vis-a-vis neighborhood schools and then end up as saying it's crucially necessary for the proper education of poor kids (via the Poor Methods).


What's odd about the whole segregation debate (and whether neighborhood or charter schools are more or less exclusive) is that we already know full well how to desegregate schools. It's called "busing" and we used to do it. Under this busing strategy, what you do is you bus some kids from the rich areas to schools in the poor areas and some kids from poor areas to schools in the rich areas. Through this magic, schools are less segregated.

But the problem with busing, it turns out, is that rich people don't want their kids going to school with poor kids (or in the case of racial busing, white people don't want their kids going to school with black kids). Rich people, it also turns out, are quite politically powerful. And so busing was gotten rid of.

To me, the politics of busing are the most illuminating when it comes to the viability of schooling desegregation of any sort. People pretend to be clever when they observe that people "buy their way" into school districts, but the real clever person would note that the reason poor people can't live in many of these districts is because rich people don't want them to and have the political power to keep them out (e.g. through exclusionary zoning). At all times, the primary cause of schooling segregation is not a lack of possible fixes but a steadfast desire among rich people to maintain it and to keep the poor in ghettos away from them.

Nothing about charter schools seems poised to change that political dynamic and I don't see rich suburban parents pulling kids out of their nice public schools to send them to urban charter schools brimming with poor kids being instructed with the Poor Methods. Thus, I suspect nothing about charter schools will deliver significant desegregation and I therefore don't understand what charter school advocates are actually trying to accomplish when they bring it up.