Blog: The Educated Reporter

Charters: open to whom?

A new study from the Civil Rights Project has gotten people talking—or should I say snickering? At National Journal, the analysts pile on, criticizing (fairly so) that the report’s main point is a heaping helping of No Duh: Schools designed as alternatives for children in overwhelmingly minority areas have student populations that are—get this!—overwhelmingly minority.How much you care depends, as Mass Insight’s Justin Cohen points out, on what you see as a more important end: better student outcomes or integration.

I think integration is a worthy goal in and of itself. But the resegregation the Civil Rights Project has for years been so effective in illuminating is a problem more than anything because minority children have been isolated in bad schools. Is it a problem if a good school is all-black or all-Hispanic? Interesting question—but not what concerns me the most about charter populations. I am more concerned about how many of the best charters have disproportionately low numbers of special education students and English language learners. This has been analyzed a small bit but not much, and it is not enough to say this happens; journalists need to figure out to what degree, why and so what?

Are parents of special needs children not choosing charters because they don’t offer the kind of services traditional schools do? Do charters have any incentive to take special needs students, or create the proper environment for them? Are charters—subtly or overtly—keeping these students from enrolling? What does that mean for direct comparisons of student achievement? Where charters are doing a good job, is it right for them to be off-limits, de facto or otherwise, to students who might need help the most?

On the flip side, some charters focus on special education students but only serve the mildly disabled, taking in a standard per-student subsidy far beyond what they spend in services. These are not easy stories to report, but don’t let that stop you.