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Study: Charter school growth accompanied by racial imbalance

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By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 2010

Seven out of 10 black charter school students are on campuses with extremely few white students, according to a new study of enrollment trends that shows the independent public schools are less racially diverse than their traditional counterparts.

The findings from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, which are being released Thursday, reflect the proliferation of charter schools in the District of Columbia and other major cities with struggling school systems and high minority populations.

To the authors of the study, the findings point to a civil rights issue: "As the country continues moving steadily toward greater segregation and inequality of education for students of color in schools with lower achievement and graduation rates," the study concludes, "the rapid growth of charter schools has been expanding a sector that is even more segregated than the public schools."

Gary Orfield, a UCLA education professor who oversaw the study, said that racially segregated schools tend to face more problems than integrated schools in teacher retention, graduation rates and other areas. He also said charter schools have not been proven to be better academically than regular public schools -- a conclusion some researchers debate.

Charter school proponents say that their movement is giving families options they would otherwise lack.

"I'm less concerned about the comparison of the racial composition of the charter schools to public schools generally, than I am in looking at whether charter schools are getting the job done in providing a viable, meaningful alternative to the regular public schools," said Brian W. Jones, vice chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

In the District, about 28,000 students attend charter schools; the school system has about 46,000 students. Recent data show that 84 percent of the city's charter school students are African American, compared with 78 percent in regular public schools.

Nationally, according to 2007-08 federal data that the study cited, black students account for 32 percent of charter school enrollment. That is roughly twice their share of enrollment in regular public schools.

The study also found that 70 percent of black charter students are in schools in which at least 90 percent of the student population is nonwhite, and 43 percent of black charter students are in schools with virtually all-minority enrollment. For black students in regular public schools, the comparable shares were 36 percent (in the high-minority enrollment schools) and 15 percent (in virtually all-minority schools).

The study recommended that federal and state governments push for racial diversification of charter schools.

"We actually are very proud of the fact that charter schools enroll more low-income kids and more kids of color than do other public schools," said Nelson Smith, president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, based in Washington. "We're happy to talk about those demographic issues. We're also happy to talk about how to increase diversity overall in all facets of public education. The real civil rights issue for many of these kids is being trapped in dysfunctional schools."

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