Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
Charter schools in Pennsylvania are defined by their flexibility and freedom from many state regulations.
A new study shows they’re also marked by their lack of diversity.
Penn State researchers found “de facto patterns of school segregation along racial and ethnic lines” in a study of brick-and-mortar charter schools.
“They’re sorting themselves into homogeneous schools,” said Erica Frankenberg, a member of the research team and an assistant professor at Penn State’s College of Education.
The study was commissioned by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a state legislative agency.
The report begins with the 2006 school year and covers a five-year span during which charter school enrollment increased by 54 percent as more and more parents opted out of the traditional public school system (cyber charter schools, which provide instruction online, saw 75 percent enrollment growth over the same period).
The report concludes that, in addition to exhibiting greater segregation, charter schools are an “obvious and escalating” stress on school district budgets, and overwhelmingly perform worse than their traditional public school counterparts.
In one rural county mentioned in the study, one charter school was largely white and another was overwhelmingly non-white.
“Given the fact that overall the public schools in rural areas of Pennsylvania are overwhelmingly white,” said Frankenberg, “having such disproportionately non-white enrollment really raises a question of why the charters are not more reflective of the overall enrollment.”
Frankenberg said it would be a mistake to assume the segregation trend is purely a byproduct of individual choice. The report noted that on a national scale, the availability of transportation and subsidized lunches affects charter school enrollment. Frankenberg said similar factors may explain the patterns of segregation in charters, which are able to “counsel” students about how well they would fare at their school they’re considering.
“In the residential market, we know that there are a number of different factors beyond just preference that in fact stratify who’s living where, and actually we see some of these similar mechanisms when we look at patterns of school choice,” said Frankenberg.
Frankenberg said the trend toward homogenous charter schools is troubling given conclusive research on the benefits for both students and teachers of being in a racially diverse school.
This is the first of two posts on the Center for Rural Pennsylvania study of charter schools. A second post will review the study’s findings regarding charter schools’ impact on school districts.
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