Federal Complaint Puts Charter School Segregation on Blast

The ACLU and the Community Legal Aid Society allege that 75 percent of charter schools in Delaware are racially divided.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Dec 16, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Hailed as the future of public education, charter schools were sold to the public as an innovative, taxpayer-funded solution to failing schools in poor minority neighborhoods and a growing achievement gap between black and white schoolchildren.

A new federal civil rights complaint, however, alleges that charter schools in Delaware have actually turned back the clock to the era of separate-but-equal education.

The complaint, filed jointly by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Community Legal Aid Society earlier this month, contends that more than three-quarters of charters statewide are identifiable as either mostly white or mostly minority, and the predominantly white ones far outperform the mostly minority ones on standardized achievement tests.

“Specifically, the state’s Charter School Act of 1995 has led to the proliferation of high-performing charter schools with practices and policies that result in the disproportionate exclusion of African-American and Hispanic students, low income students and students with disabilities,” according to the complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The disparities, the complaint continues, stem from state-sanctioned “preferential treatment” of some students, including its “failure to adequately regulate school-level barriers to admission” such as expensive uniforms, mandatory parental involvement and activity fees.

The ACLU and CLAS want the Office for Civil Rights to stop Delaware from authorizing and opening new charter schools until the state comes up with an acceptable desegregation plan—including eliminating funding disparity between charters and traditional public schools.

"The power of choice should be with the student and the family, not with the charter school," Kathleen MacRae, the ACLU's executive director, said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit.

The Delaware complaint, while eye-opening, is simply the latest challenge alleging racial discrimination at charter schools.

Two months ago in Buffalo, N.Y., a coalition of families sued the state, alleging that the city’s charter school system discriminates against children of color. In May, a group known as the Journey for Justice Alliance accused authorities in Chicago, New Orleans, and Newark, N.J., of discrimination after they closed some neighborhood schools or converted them to charters.

The issue of de facto segregation is particularly stark in Minneapolis, which is arguably the birthplace of the charter school movement. A 2012 study by the Institute on Race and Poverty showed that the number of predominantly white charter schools in the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs exploded from 11 in 2000 to 37 in 2010.

Public education advocate Jeff Bryant, director of Education Opportunity Network, says that, given the evidence, there’s a high likelihood that the lawsuits will force charters—and the education officials and politicians that support them—to take a hard look at how they operate.

“There’s ample proof that charters, nationally and even regionally, are more segregated than public schools,” says Bryant. Yet “we do that by design,” he adds, noting that education officials either put charters in poor, mostly African American and Latino neighborhoods where people are hungry for quality schools, or the schools are found in mostly white enclaves where parents have more political clout.

In Delaware, one study found that practically all of the charter schools in the state either have a majority white student body—more than 70 percent—or are almost completely minority. It’s a similar scenario in Cleveland, where Constellation Schools, a suburban-based charter network, enrolls relatively few black or Latino students but has nearly two dozen schools.

And in 2010, the Civil Rights Project at the University of Southern California-Los Angeles found the same pattern in the West and the South, suggesting “that charters serve as havens for white flight from public schools.”

But schools in poor neighborhoods don’t attract many white or affluent students, particularly if white students have their own neighborhood charter schools. Poor kids don’t have easy access to mostly white, suburban charters, says Bryant. And because hard-luck communities lack political power, charter schools tend to get the lion’s share of taxpayer resources.

The overall pattern of mostly white or mostly minority schools, says Bryant, ignores evidence that racially and economically integrated schools are better learning environments—and not just for poor minority kids. Studies have shown even white middle-class students get an educational boost from going to class with kids who aren’t like them.

Because of the evidence, “I can hope that the lawsuits bring about some change in how charter schools are regulated,” says Bryant. But the longer-term answer, he says, is more equitable funding for public schools across the board.

“If some of our policy leaders would pay attention, we’ll be a whole lot better off” in the future, says Bryant. “We have to start doing something.”