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New charter schools debate: Are they widening racial divides in public education?

Interim principal Denise L. Bloomer directs children to their classrooms at Greater Grace Charter Academy in Vacherie, La., in late March. (Max Becherer/Polaris Images for The Washington Post)

— At the new public charter school in this Mississippi River town, nearly all the students are African American. Parents seem unconcerned about that. They just hope their children will get a better education.

“I wanted my girls to soar higher,” said Alfreda Cooper, who is black and has two daughters at Greater Grace Charter Academy.

Three hours up the road, students at Delta Charter School in Concordia Parish are overwhelmingly white, even though the surrounding community is far more mixed.

As the charter school movement accelerates across the country, a critical question remains unanswered: whether the creation of charters is accelerating school segregation. Federal judges who oversee desegregation plans in Louisiana are wrestling with that issue at a time when President Trump wants to spend billions of dollars on charter schools, vouchers and other “school choice” initiatives.

Trump seeks to slash Education Department but make big push for school choice

In February, a judge found that Delta Charter had violated the terms of the parish’s court-ordered desegregation plan and asked the parties to submit proposals for how to move forward. The local school board in Concordia not only is seeking reimbursement of millions of dollars, but also wants the judge to require the charter school to cancel its enrollment and start over with the aim of creating a more diverse student body. That would include offering transportation to the school — something that could make it possible for more black students to attend.

The nation’s schools have become more segregated by race and class over the past two decades, according to federal data, and some research indicates that charter schools are more likely to be segregated than traditional public schools. Some charter advocates say they are more interested in creating good schools for marginalized children as quickly as possible — no matter the consequences for the racial makeup of enrollment.

“I ain’t got time for people talking about integration when we’re trying to meet the needs of these children,” said Howard L. Fuller, an education professor at Marquette University who supports charter schools, private-school vouchers and other efforts to give parents more say in education.

More than 60 years after "separate" was declared unequal in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, research shows that schools serving mostly poor children of color have fewer resources, more inexperienced teachers and limited access to rigorous coursework.

“No one is saying that charter schools are bad,” said Deuel Ross, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund involved in one of the Louisiana cases. “But research and hundreds of years of history have shown that segregated schools are not what’s best for black children.”

Choice vs. integration

The first charter schools — taxpayer-funded and privately run — were founded a quarter-century ago as an experiment to give teachers more freedom to innovate. Today, advocates say the institutions provide disadvantaged students with a high-quality education, while critics say they siphon money out of traditional public schools, at least partially privatizing an essential government function.

Charters account for a small share of public school enrollment — about 5 percent in 2014, federal data shows. Trump’s interest in expanding charters could accelerate their growth, forcing state and local leaders to make difficult decisions about how and whether to balance the ideals of parent choice and integrated schools.

Concordia Parish, which stretches for 70 miles along the Mississippi border, has been trying to desegregate its schools for decades, under the eye of the federal government. In 2013, a federal judge allowed Delta Charter School to open there on the condition that its student body reflect the demographics of the school district.

At the time, the district was split almost evenly between black and white students. But the charter, in the predominantly African American town of Ferriday, has never enrolled a proportionate share of black students. Seventeen percent of Delta Charter’s students were black at the start of the 2016-2017 school year, court records show.

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The local school board also contends in court documents that the charter school has siphoned $11.6 million from district schools in the past four years, making it harder for the parish to carry out its desegregation plan, which includes a districtwide magnet program.

The charter school opened in a building that once housed a “segregation academy” — one of the all-white private schools that emerged decades ago in the South to resist court-ordered integration. That symbolism is not lost on the community. Adding to the tension, a veteran teacher in the school district said many of the area’s high-performing students and involved parents have decamped for the charter.

“It’s kind of looked down upon if you go to a public school,” said teacher D’Shay Oaks, referring to the traditional public schools.

The students left behind have lost academic role models, she said. And the school has lost fundraising and volunteer power, delaying an effort to update its computer lab and make other needed improvements.

A lawyer for Delta Charter declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. But Sheena Mize, whose son and daughter attend the charter, says the school is succeeding academically and should not be penalized for the community’s long-standing racial divide.

“It is the way it is in this area,” said Mize, who is white. “The community separated themselves on their own. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault the way it ended up.”

Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, defended the school. Delta Charter should not be asked to bear the burden of solving “society’s complex racial struggles and history,” she said. The school — which is rated a B on the state’s A-to-F scale — “has done more to create a high-quality public school that is open to all residents than the district has achieved in the past 60 years,” she said.

Charter schools do not use neighborhood boundaries to determine enrollment. Theoretically, that gives them the potential to create more student diversity than traditional schools. But for most charters, desegregation has not been the primary goal.

Of the states that allow charter schools, about a third require affirmative steps toward diversity. Even then, most have no mechanisms for enforcing such provisions, according to Erica Frankenberg, a Pennsylvania State University professor and expert on school segregation.

And there is mounting evidence that charters contribute to the broader resegregation of the nation’s classrooms. Researchers with the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles found in 2010 that black students in charter schools are far more likely than their counterparts in traditional public schools to be educated in an intensely segregated setting.

Other studies in California, North Carolina, Minnesota and the District have reached similar conclusions. But some experts caution that many factors, including housing patterns and geography, can influence the racial distribution of students at any given school.

Nationally, evidence on charter school performance is mixed. Some are mired in financial difficulty and academic mediocrity. But there are clear examples of charter schools that provide poor and minority children with stronger educational opportunities.

Five myths about charter schools

The KIPP charter network says its students graduate from high school at a rate 20 percentage points higher than their low-income peers across the country do. At the all-male Urban Prep Charter Academy in Chicago, 100 percent of graduates have been accepted to college, including to Ivy League universities, over the past eight years.

Another option

People in Vacherie hope Greater Grace Charter Academy will be one of these beat-the-odds schools.

Housed in a cinder block building leased from a local church, Greater Grace is located in a town situated amid sugar cane fields on the west bank of the Mississippi. Each morning, students clad in maroon uniforms stream inside as flatbed trucks whiz by on the highway out front.

During the day, the children learn in trailers in the back, and at dismissal, they board the charter school’s yellow bus, bound for all corners of 260-square-mile St. James Parish, where the school is located.

But Greater Grace does not reflect the demographics of a parish school system that also has been trying to diversify its classrooms for decades under a court-ordered desegregation plan. Of the 3,800 students in St. James Parish, roughly two-thirds are black, and a third are white. At Greater Grace, more than 90 percent of students are black, giving rise to concerns that the new school has created yet another racially isolated setting.

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When a federal judge allowed Greater Grace to open, he emphasized the value of parental choice. But black parents and the NAACP have appealed, arguing that Greater Grace should be closed until it can reopen with a more integrated approach. Oral arguments are scheduled for June at a federal appeals court in New Orleans.

Rhoda Johnson, a black plaintiff in the case, said she is troubled by the segregated nature of the new charter. As a child, she attended an all-black district school not far from where Greater Grace now stands.

“We used hand-me-down books from the white school,” recalled Johnson, 56, whose son and grandsons attend schools in the St. James public district.

Locals say that in this parish, dotted with antebellum plantations once powered by slave labor and now dependent on tourist dollars, one side always has been predominantly black and the other predominantly white. Even after decades of desegregation efforts, traditional public schools within the parish also remain intensely segregated, according to court records.

Claudette Aubert, the charter school’s founder, said it was time to give families in her rural community another option.

She opened Greater Grace last fall after learning that many students were falling years behind in reading and math at traditional public schools. The charter school offers small class sizes and computer-based instruction to help meet students at their level, Aubert said.

A pastor in St. James Parish and former special-education teacher, Aubert says she spent years educating residents about the possibilities a charter school could bring to their community.

It is still too early to tell whether Greater Grace will make good on its promise of a better education. But when the school opened its doors last year, 85 students enrolled.

“They showed up,” Aubert said. “They wanted another choice.”

Emma Brown contributed to this report, which was produced in partnership with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, where McLaren is a student.