The New York Times’ most emailed articles list typically does not include the most hard-hitting journalism. Instead, the list features pet stories about Ivy League graduates forced to wait tables or, this week, parents paying for their middle-aged daughters to freeze their eggs as grandparent insurance. Monday morning’s list, however, had an important story that examines a tradeoff posed by the charter school movement: the increasing self-selection into segregated schools.
Over the last few decades, the charters have brought the market to the schoolhouse. For parents whose children would have been siphoned into a low-performing school, school choice can provide other, hopefully better, options. But, as N.R. Kleinfield’s article, At Explore Charter School, a Portrait of Segregated Education, demonstrates, charters can also further segregate schools.
School assignment policies—often based on neighborhoods where families choose neighbors who look like them— can create segregated schools. I’ve written before about Wake County, NC, and the consequences of its transition from an innovative income-based busing policy to neighborhood-based school assignments. School choice takes this concern one step further.
While New York City’s public school population is racially diverse, more than half of the city’s schools are at least 90 percent black and Hispanic. Explore Charter School falls into that category: its student population is both racially (92.7 percent black and 5.7 percent Hispanic) and economically homogenous (80 percent of the students are eligible for subsidized lunch.) As Kleinfield points out: “the school’s makeup is in line with charter schools nationally, which are over all less integrated than traditional public schools.”
This is a worrisome tradeoff to the school choice movement. Research over the past fifty years indicates that segregation has a negative impact on academic achievement, especially for minority students. But school is not just about test scores. For many children, school is the first opportunity to have significant contact with children from different backgrounds. Interracial contact—whether in the classroom, the choir room, or the basketball court—improves the chances of friendship. Charlie Clotfelter, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, writes that integrated schools provide intangible benefits that can increase post-secondary achievement:
Whereas whites in the all-white school took for granted cultural distinctions associated with whites, white students in the diverse school were fully aware of these distinctions because they were the subject of routine interracial discourse. Among black adults, those who reported having at least one close white friend were much more likely than other blacks to believe that whites are not indifferent to the well-being of blacks, but rather want to help them get ahead.
Interracial contact can also provide minority students with access to networks that are important in finding jobs and opportunities for higher education. Studies show that black students from desegregated schools are more likely to go to college and to work in a diverse workplace.
School choice isn’t going away—and nor should it. But we have to understand the negative consequences of allowing parents to re-segregate schools through choice. With integrated schools come contact, friendship, and understanding. These things are not enough to fix our nation’s problems, but they are an important start. Without them, we risk starting with an achievement gap and ending with a divided nation.