Education Secretary Arne Duncan (By Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

The Education Department on Wednesday released new guidance that allows charter schools receiving federal funds to change their student admissions lotteries so that  low-income and educationally disadvantaged students can have more weight in an effort to create more integrated schools. Explaining the changes in this post are Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter, both of The Century Foundation and co-authors of “A Better Direction for Charter Schools: Restoring the Original Vision of Charter Schools by Empowering Teachers and Integrating Students,” due out later this year from Teachers College Press.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter

Today the U.S. Department of Education issued new non-regulatory guidance on charter schools that allows schools receiving federal start-up and replication funding to employ “weighted lotteries” that favor low-income or educationally disadvantaged students in order to produce more integrated schools. Under previous regulations, charters receiving such funding had to use a blind lottery that gives all students an equal chance of admission, even if a school would have liked to weight its lottery to ensure diverse admissions.

This guidance is an important step toward making charter schools more equitable and effective. Research on school integration going back nearly five decades has shown that students learn more, on average, in economically and racially diverse schools than in segregated learning environments. These academic results are particularly strong for low-income students. One 2010 study of students living in public housing in Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, found that those randomly assigned to integrated neighborhoods and schools showed greater academic gains than those in high-poverty neighborhoods and schools, even though the high-poverty schools spent more per pupil.

Students of all backgrounds also receive civic, social, and cognitive benefits by attending integrated schools. Socioeconomically and racially diverse learning environments have been shown to improve students’ critical thinking and promote collaboration. They also help prevent bias and reduce prejudice.

Accordingly, the original vision for charter schools, as outlined by American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker and others, was that they could be vehicles for higher levels of student integration. Addressing a crowd in the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in 1988, three years before the nation’s first charter school law was passed, Shanker shared an idea for a new kind of school where teachers would have the freedom to innovate, developing effective teaching methods that could be shared with other public schools, and where students of diverse races, ethnicities, classes, and abilities would come together. Likewise, a report released later that year by a Minnesota policy organization that was influential in shaping that state’s charter school law — the first such law in the country — identified “building additional quality through diversity” as a central goal for charter schools. The report called for charter schools to recruit students from diverse geographic, economic, and racial backgrounds and employ instructional methods that encourage student interaction and integration.

Unfortunately, charter schools quickly drifted away from this initial vision. Today, charter schools nationwide are on average more racially and economically segregated than traditional public schools. According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, as of 2008 half of all low-income students in charter schools attended schools where more than 75% of students are low-income, versus a third of low-income students in traditional public schools. Meanwhile, 36% of all students in charter schools attended schools where at least 90% of students are from minority households, compared with 16% of students in regular public schools.

One reason that de facto economic and racial segregation has become so common in the charter sector is that many charter schools are designed that way. Prominent charter school operators have labored under the mistaken belief that segregation doesn’t matter in charters. They hope to get the greatest bang for their buck by locating in cities and serving as many at-risk students as possible, then make a risky bet that they can beat the odds by making high-poverty schools successful. While a few charter operators have made this model successful, many others have struggled. Research shows that charter schools perform about the same as traditional public schools on average.

But another reason for the proliferation of high-poverty, racially isolated charter schools is that our laws and regulations have not prioritized bringing about greater integration. Exhibit A was the federal ban of weighted lotteries in schools receiving start-up funding or replication grants. Under the old guidelines, those charter schools that did want to be economically and racially integrated had to forgo a chance a federal funding if they wanted to use a weighted lottery to reach their diversity goals.

A small but growing subset of charter schools  are swimming against the tide and prioritizing diverse enrollment anyway. Some of these schools, like the High Tech High network in San Diego and DSST Public Schools in Denver, have chosen to use weighted lotteries at the expense of forgoing certain federal funding, seeking private philanthropic support to help make up the difference. Others, like E. L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., chose not to use a weighted lottery in part so that they could receive federal start-up funds. In exchange, they must use highly strategic recruitment to encourage diverse enrollment and hope that the lottery results mirror their diversity goals.

But in either case, these schools have had to make a difficult choice that most other charter schools don’t face. If we want to encourage the creation of new diverse charter schools, and the expansion of successful integrated examples already out there, opening federal funding to schools with weighted lotteries is important.

As we explain in our forthcoming book, “A Better Direction for Charter Schools,” we would go even further than the new guidance to allow lotteries weighted for diversity that function through many different means, not only reserving seats for low-income students. High Tech High, for example, uses a lottery weighted by zip code, seeking an even distribution of students from across the San Diego metropolitan area. And Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy in Rhode Island enrolls students from urban and suburban locales equally, in addition to ensuring at least 50% of students are low-income. However, the federal new regulations, which only allow weighting in favor of low-income or otherwise educationally disadvantaged students, are a step in the right direction.

Furthermore, we encourage states that do not already do so to follow this federal lead and explicitly allow charter schools to use lotteries weighted for diversity. Current state laws on charter school lotteries are varied and often unclear.

Charter schools as a whole have moved far away from the original vision of laboratory schools that empower teachers and enroll students of many different backgrounds and abilities. But this new federal policy could encourage more charter schools to fulfill that promise — and help improve outcomes for kids.