DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Could history be repeating itself? That’s the question raised by a study published Monday in the National Bureau of Economic Research that looks at the racial makeup of charter schools in North Carolina.
The study, “The Growing Segmentation of the Charter School Sector in North Carolina,” was published by Duke University professors Helen Ladd, Charles Clotfelter and John Holbein. It examines the trends of student enrollment in charter schools, primarily between fourth and eighth grades, since their introduction in the state in 1997.
Click Here to view the study
Prior to the opening of the first charter school in the state, the study’s authors point to concerns from “advocates for poor and minority students” who feared charter schools may lead to re-segregation.
“This opposition may have reflected the state’s historical experience with school choice during the 1960s, when ‘freedom academies’ were established to provide a way for white students to avoid integrated school,” the authors write.
While the early years showed black students “substantially overrepresented” in the state’s charter schools compared to enrollment in public schools, the study points out the enrollment patterns have shifted in recent years. By 2012, the study says white students were “significantly overrepresented” in charter schools.
“As of 2012, charter schools served a disproportionately small number of minority students,” the authors write.
Specifically, the study says white students account for 62.2 percent of the enrollment in charter schools, while black and Hispanic student account for 31.8 percent of the enrollment. By comparison, public schools are comprised of 53 percent white students and 39.2 percent minorities.
The reason for the drop in minority student enrollment, the study suggests, is the closure of schools with “relatively small proportions of white students.”
“Of the 12 charter schools that closed between 2005 and 2012, for example, all but one had a lower percentage of white students” than in the charter’s corresponding public schools,” the authors write. “Of the 19 charter schools that opened between 2005 and 2012, 13 had white percentages higher than their corresponding district.”
The group Parents for Educational Freedom in N.C., which advocates for charter schools as a means to provide parents with more educational choices for their children, contends that “a greater percentage” of black students enroll in charter schools than they do public schools.
“More children from low-income families and from minority families are being given the opportunity to exercise school choice and to select schools that better meet their children’s needs,” PEFNC president Darrell Allison said in a statement. “We are also seeing more and more high-quality public charter schools emerge that serve to meet the needs of low-income students by providing transportation and school lunches.”
PEFNC points to data from the North Carolina Office of Charter Schools that shows black student comprised 20 percent of charter school enrollment during the 2012-13 academic year. For comparison black student enrollment in public schools was 26 percent.
“I find the claims that public charter schools perpetuate segregation across our state to be both false and disingenuous,” Allison said. “To the contrary, what I honestly believe is that we have both white parents and black parents aggressively utilizing various school choice options in order to find schools that will best educate their children. For them, the only race they are concerned about is their child racing to the top of their class and no longer lagging behind.”
But the study says white and black parents approach the racial makeup of their childrens’ schools differently.
“The preferred mix for black parents was a school that was between 40 and 60 percent black while the preferred mix for white parents was 20 percent black,” the authors write.
This, Ladd suggests, creates a tipping point as white parents move their children into charter schools.
“Once a school becomes ‘too black,’ it becomes almost all black as white parents avoid it,” the authors write.
According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, there are 148 charter schools in the state serving 69,477 students. The counties with the highest percentage (15 percent and higher) of charter schools enrollment are Halifax, Person, Pamlico, Northampton and Edgecombe.
Since the state lifted a cap on the number of charter schools, PEFNC says it has seen enrollment increases of 20 percent in black students and 21 percent in white students.
“Of the 54 public charter schools that have opened in North Carolina since the cap was eliminated, 33 percent of them are being led by a black principal,” Allison said. “As a result of eliminating the cap on public charter schools in our state, we now have two strong educators of color leading solid public schools [in Halifax and Bertie counties], which happen to be charters, and a majority of the children they educate happen to be both low-income and mostly minority.”
The study’s authors say parents with children in charter schools “seem generally more satisfied with their schools — as evidenced by their willingness to remain in these schools when that option is available.”
“However, this relative satisfaction may reflect factors other than simply the quality of education the school delivers,” the authors suggest. “In sum, the charter school sector as a whole may be doing more to satisfy the preference of white families for predominately white schools that it is in providing better options for large numbers of minority students.”
The authors write, “This pattern is a cause for concern.”