Performance Not Population: Why Charter Schools are an Educational and Civil Rights Solution

Last week researchers at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project released Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards. The authors contend that charter schools are more racially segregated than traditional public schools and that charter schools therefore represent a civil rights problem and should be shut down if they fail to meet federal diversity targets. This will come as quite a shock to parents and students who are benefitting from charter schools.

Choice Without Equity compares the racial composition of charter schools to racial segregation in the historic South and even to apartheid in South Africa. The report focuses on integration as the sole measure of school performance. It argues that schools with racially isolated populations represent civil rights violations that need remedy, regardless of student performance or any other measure. The legal and enforced segregation of minority students was a blight on America’s history but to compare today’s charter schools with this history of systematic segregation is an egregious misrepresentation.

The Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision that separate schools were inherently unequal began the important process of allowing African American students access to the higher quality schools their white peers attended. Prior to the decision, segregation resulted in huge inequalities in school conditions, teacher quality, classroom resources, and student outcomes.

The goal of integration was to improve educational opportunities so that all students had access to the best schools, the best classroom instruction, and the most opportunity. Student performance was at the heart of the need for integration, and should continue to be the focus of any discussion regarding civil rights and schooling today.

Some charter schools have problems but overall they represent a civil rights and educational solution. Countless charters across the country have provided opportunities for minority and low-income students that the regular—and supposedly more “integrated”—government-run schools do not. Take, for example, the Knowledge is Power Program that operates 82 schools in 19 states and serve predominantly minority students.

A full 33 percent of KIPP students are Latino, 63 percent African American, and only 2 percent White and Asian respectively. But KIPP schools get results. The college matriculation rate for KIPP schools is 85 percent, compared with 40 percent for low-income students nationwide. A 2005 study found large gains among KIPP fifth graders on standardized tests. At a KIPP school in Houston, the number of students performing at grade level in reading and math increased from 50 percent to 90 percent.

KIPP is only one program among many that achieve remarkable levels of student performance. In California, for example, American Indian Public Charter has consistently produced high-performing students, and it too serves mostly minority and low-income families.

By the narrow standard of Choice Without Equity, these charters might qualify as “segregated” or even “apartheid” schools, even though they have achieved far more than the government-run schools the researchers claim are more diverse, but in many cases are not. These charters have given opportunities to students, choices to parents, and hope for a better future for families—the very qualities civil-rights legislation hoped to achieve and government-run schools have failed to provide.

To create more diverse student bodies, the report calls for federal diversity incentives by any means possible, even busing. Removing the focus from achievement could divert precious resources into “diversity programs,” a euphemism for the racial and ethnic preferences that are illegal in California under Proposition 209. Such programs do little to improve opportunities and academic outcomes for the students who need them most. Worse, the researchers want to close charter schools that fail to meet diversity targets.

Choice Without Equity betrays skewed scholarship, offers faulty conclusions and advocates destructive non-solutions. It is utterly incomprehensible and reprehensible that a group of researchers who claim to support civil rights, diversity and equal opportunity seek to eliminate opportunity and choice.

Parents, lawmakers, and all citizens should remember what matters most in education reform: the students who deserve the best education possible. Charter schools represent choice, parent initiative, and hope for thousands of students who would otherwise be stuck in underperforming and dangerous schools.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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