Charting Progress

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Ensuring Equity to Improve College Preparation at Charter Schools

Dan Losen

It’s difficult to say whether charter schools are doing a good job of preparing underrepresented students for college, says Dan Losen, JD, MEd, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles, because no two charter schools are alike. The center is dedicated to improving educational opportunities and outcomes for children who are frequently subjected to exclusionary practices.

The effectiveness and equity of charter schools has been a hot topic for years in education circles. With Betsy DeVos — a champion of charter schools — now at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education, dialogue regarding the credibility of these schools has increased even more.

Conflicting and sometimes sparse research makes the task of determining if charter schools are good for all students a difficult one. A number of studies show that those who attend these institutions, on average, academically outperform students at traditional public schools. Recent research conducted in Boston and published by the Boston Foundation and NewSchools Venture Fund suggests that charter schools also improve college attendance and choice. A study published by the Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California examining data from Chicago and Florida found that these schools have positive effects on college admission and persistence, as well as later earning potential.

However, other analyses, such as one published by Princeton University in 2016, have found the exact opposite: that charter schools have little to no effect on these long-term indicators of success.

Even if it were a given that charter schools consistently increase their students’ chances of leading successful academic and professional lives, there is still the question of equity. Are the majority of charter schools welcoming and effectively preparing a diverse group of students to succeed in higher education? According to Losen, they are not. And that’s a problem.

Losen blames a misguided approach to discipline for some charter schools’ failure to create both diverse and inclusive environments. Those that take a zero-tolerance approach — often referred to as “no-excuses charter schools” — create an environment that both explicitly and implicitly tells certain students they’re not welcome.

Some such schools seem to approach education with an attitude of “we only educate the most obedient [children] in this neighborhood,” says Losen. “So if I’m a parent of a student with ADHD … or Tourette syndrome, I’m going to be reluctant to send [my child] to a school that’s [communicating] that they don’t tolerate anything but this sort of lockstep behavior.”

Unfortunately, this exclusion doesn’t end with written policies, Losen says. Subtle messaging also serves to keep away students who might require more support than others. “There are many charter schools that don’t provide information about their institution in Spanish, for example, or in other languages,” he says, adding that often they also don’t provide a full spectrum of special education services.

These issues also concern Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center that focuses on diversity, equity, and justice in education. She believes that any system of choice tends to skew away from children with special needs.

Additionally, as charter schools siphon off students who require fewer resources, the most vulnerable students are left in traditional public schools. “Students with disabilities, those affected by large opportunity gaps, and those in deep poverty — perhaps living in a shelter or foster environment — are now more isolated than ever in schools where they are a majority,” says Costello.

It’s a sort of creaming effect that works to both drive up charter schools’ test scores and depress those of other schools, says Losen — a phenomenon that also robs traditional public schools of financial resources. As charter schools take in students who don’t require much additional support, public schools in the same area are left with a higher concentration of those who do require more resources, he says — and more resources means greater expenses.

“Kids who come to school with more behavioral issues and more needs — English language learners, kids with disabilities — … they require more supports and services to succeed, and they deserve that,” Losen says.

In the end, traditional public schools are left with both higher bills and lower test scores compared with charter schools in the same area. “It’s a deal with the devil,” says Costello. “We’re getting gains for some students by willfully allowing others to continue to fall behind.”

It’s not all bad, though, says Losen. “Just because some of the leading charter proponents have embraced the no-excuses approach,” he says, doesn’t mean all of these schools have to. “Charter schools could be a tool for diversity. [They could] adopt a much more creative, problem-solving kind of curriculum — and I think there are probably some like that.”

In fact, the National Coalition of Diverse Charter Schools has grown from 14 member schools when it was founded in 2014 to more than 100 today as it pursues its mission “to support the creation and expansion of high-quality, racially and economically diverse public charter schools.”

Grover J. Whitehurst

The key is to create schools that are integrated and are successful at “preparing their students both academically and socially for later challenges and opportunities,” says Grover J. Whitehurst, PhD, author of the report Segregation, Race, and Charter Schools: What Do We Know?

“There are not many schools that do any of these things well, much less all of them,” he says. Despite their flaws, no-excuses charter schools may have some strategies to share regarding academic success, but they — and all other schools — need to do a better job of preparing students for the “broader culture they will encounter after they finish high school,” Whitehurst says.

Perhaps the takeaway is that charter schools are as diverse as the children they seek to serve.— and as difficult to make generalizations about. Losen and Costello believe there are some baselines that these institutions must meet, though, if charter school is to be a viable K-12 option: They must welcome a diverse group of students, and they must do a good job preparing all students for college and life.

“I think aligning with universities to be laboratories of innovation in the truest sense of the word,” says Losen, “with the goal of not replacing but improving traditional schools, would be a great next step.”●

Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.