In the first nationally comprehensive examination of charter school effects on school system segregation, we demonstrate that growth in charter school enrollment increases the segregation of black, Hispanic, and white students.
The effects, however, are modest because charter schools make up a small share of total enrollment and have different effects across different kinds of districts. Our analysis indicates that eliminating charter schools would reduce segregation by 5 percent in the average district.
To measure charter school effects on segregation, we looked at enrollment data from 1998 to 2015. Rather than looking solely at each school’s demographics, we used a measure that considers the context in which schools are located, acknowledging that in a district that is 95 percent Hispanic, for example, we wouldn’t expect a school to be equal parts black, white, and Hispanic.
We also zoom in on local effects by looking at how segregation changed across grades within a system with different levels of charter school enrollment. For example, if DC had a large increase in ninth-grade charter school enrollment relative to other grades in a given year, we’d look at whether ninth-graders in DC became more segregated than students in other grades in DC in that year.
- The finding that increasing charter school enrollment leads to small increases in segregation holds for cities and counties as well as school districts. The averages, however, mask considerable variation across districts, cities, and states.
- The segregative effects of charter schools are greater in urban districts with high shares of black and Hispanic students and in suburban districts with low black and Hispanic representation.
- Charter schools have no discernible impact on the segregation of metropolitan areas. This is because the increase in segregation within districts in metropolitan areas is offset by greater integration between districts within the same metropolitan area. Essentially, districts within a metropolitan area become more diverse, but the schools within those districts don’t become more integrated.
Measuring integration matters because evidence shows that diversity has positive political and sociological benefits and affects dropout and graduation rates, exam scores, and college enrollment not only for black and Hispanic students but also for white students in some cases. Additionally, integration improves outcomes by ensuring educational resources are more equitably available to all students and by increasing the total pool of resources.
Charter school leaders and policymakers could consider policies like centralizing school choice into common enrollment systems or diverse-by-design charter schools to mitigate the segregative impacts of charter schools.
It is also important to remember, however, that many charter schools were founded and tailored to serve students from vulnerable backgrounds, and many have improved student outcomes. Segregation that takes place in a school choice environment is fundamentally different from the forced segregation common in the pre–Brown v. Board of Education era and should not be interpreted with the same lens. More research is needed to understand the effects of choice-driven segregation on student outcomes.