Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Parents look for schools with matching demographics

By DANIEL OPSOMMER
Capital News Service

LANSING – Charter schools in the state operated by for-profit companies are significantly segregated by race, income and language, according to a Western Michigan University research team.

“Charter schools aren’t doing it on purpose, but they are facilitating white and black flight from public schools,” said WMU professor Gary Miron. “The issue is lack of diversity because families are self-selecting charter schools with high concentrations of either white or minority students.”

By comparing enrollment trends for charters operated by private education management organizations to demographics in local public schools, researchers discovered that only one-fourth of student bodies in those charters are relatively similar to local districts.

“A disproportionate number of charter schools served almost wholly minority students, while others catered overwhelmingly to white students,” Miron said. “This pattern of segregation was largely replicated when we examined the student demographics by economic status and English language learners.”

Michigan has 232 charter schools that educate nearly 6 percent of the state’s K-12 students. For-profit companies operate 191 of the charters.

Charters or “public academies” are quasi public schools funded by state aid. They cannot charge tuition.

Miron said, “Michigan leads the nation in terms of the extent that private, for-profit companies are operating public charter schools.”

“Therefore, learning about the companies is especially critical because of the current pressure on low-performing public school districts to hire management companies,” he said.

Michigan Education Association media relation specialist Kerry Birmingham said charters must be held to the same standards as public schools to endure quality education.

“In public schools every child that lives in the district has the opportunity to attend that public school,” Birmingham said. “In a charter school they have selection criteria, and the way certain charters are set up they do exclude certain groups, whether its students with special needs, students of a certain socioeconomic class or whether it’s a racial issue.”

Birmingham said exclusion is one of MEA’s main concerns with charter schools.

“Students need to be in a diverse environment and they learn best when they are surrounded by a diverse population like they are in the real world, and it’s unfortunate that certain groups are excluded,” Birmingham said.

Charters in Detroit, Dearborn and Holland are among the most highly segregated, while charters in Traverse City and Petoskey are among the most similar, according to the study.

Researchers at Western’s College of Education based their analysis on enrollments in 2006-2007.

“Some experts feared that charter schools would serve as a means for white families to leave schools with high concentrations of minorities,” Miron said. “Our findings suggest that it is even more common for minority families to leave district schools to enroll in charter schools that have higher concentrations of minority students.”

According to the study:

  • Charters tend to be less diverse, racially and ethnically diverse, than local public school districts.
  • Charters tend to serve either largely high-income or largely low-income families.
  • More than half of charters enroll far fewer English language learners than local districts.

“In a nutshell, the data paints a pattern of charter schools gravitating to the extremes – regarding race and ethnicity, economic status, and English language learner status – rather than gravitating around the demographics of local districts,” Miron said.

For instance, the Dearborn Academy, which has grades K-8, is significantly less racially diverse than local districts. The student body is about 78 percent white, while districts where its students live are about 73 percent minority.

By comparison, the Advanced Technology Academy, also in Dearborn, is about 98 percent African American, while its sending districts are more than 90 percent white.

“In many cases charter schools are not held to the same standards as public schools,” Birmingham said. “Until charters are held to the same standards as public schools we can’t support the idea that charter schools can just make up their own rules, because that doesn’t ensure that every child gets a high quality education.”

In addition, 73 percent of its students come from low-income families, 21 percent more than its sending districts.

Miron said, “Schools with higher concentrations of low-income students, on average, perform worse on standardized tests and their students are more likely to require remedial support, which would suggest that urban areas wouldn’t be attractive to for-profit companies.”

Black River Public School, a charter in Holland, has about 82 percent white students, while the districts where they live are about 52 percent minority, the study said.

The charter is also significantly segregated by income and language, enrolling 36 percent fewer low-income students and 11 percent fewer English language learners than local districts, researchers said.

Penny Davis, a researcher for the Central Michigan University’s Center for Charter Schools, said that charters serve a high proportion of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch, which could explain the economic segregation patterns in the study.

A Department of Education study for 2008 found more than half of all charter students qualified for free or reduced price lunch, in comparison with about one-third of public school students statewide.

In contrast, the Grand Traverse Academy in Traverse City is relatively similar to local districts in all three criteria. Researchers found less than a 1 percent difference from its local districts racially, while income and language differences are only 6 and 2 percent.

Likewise, Lakeshore Educational Management Inc. of Charlevoix operates charters in Petoskey, Mancelona and Boyne City. According to the study, all three of its charters have demographics similar to their local districts.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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