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In Search of Uncommon Schools: Charter School Reform in Historical Perspective (Part 3) - Charter Schools as Uncommon Schools

by Amy Stuart Wells - November 02, 2000

Evidence that charter schools are even more segregated along racial and social class lines than our already very separate and unequal public educational system

So, now let me hit charter school reform within a search for uncommon schools. It seems since the 19th century, the common schools in both theory and practice have been resisted from more than one standpoint, particularly in resistance to broader association and to assimilation. Both of these forms of resistance are alive and well within the charter school reform movement. In fact, one way to look at charter school reform is to understand that in terms of, to understand it in terms of a backlash against various dimensions of the ideal of the common school, namely the thrust for integration and broader association as well as the common school goal of assimilating everyone into a common curriculum and culture. But it is also more complicated than that because within charter school reform, we see that it is not only the most privileged families that are concerned about association, not that only the culturally oppressed groups who resist assimilation to state mandated curriculum.

Thus charter school reform is instructive, because within it we see various dimensions of the struggle to pull away from the common public system. Furthermore, it is multifaceted and complex, and a very contextual reform, meaning that the search for uncommon schools is localized and relative to what has become common in a given context.

First of all in terms of association, the common school emphasis is on children of different background sharing a common place. In my research with my graduate students working on a book on racial diversity within charter schools, we found ample evidence to suggest that charter schools are less racially and socio-economically diverse than the already segregated public schools, albeit for different reasons in different states and communities (Wells, Holme, Lopez, and Cooper, 2000).

Basically what we found was that despite aggregated data from the US department of education, which shows that low income students and students of color are enrolled in charter schools overall- and actually shows that- if you look at the last two categories- shows that white students not of Hispanic origin are underrepresented in charter schools at the aggregate level and black students of Hispanic origin - not of Hispanic origin, I’m sorry - are over-represented- So when you look at this aggregate data, it looks as pretty much charter schools are serving a similar population to the public schools overall in the 27 states that were studied.

But actually when you break it down, stand back and start looking at charter school enrollment in different states, in different states, you see a very different picture. It appears that in some states charter school reform is mostly an urban phenomenon serving predominantly low-income students of color. And these are often the states- those would be the states of the far side of the overhead- Michigan, Texas, Florida, Massachusetts- those are states in which white students are underrepresented in charter schools. These are often states in which the general public school population is predominantly white and less poor such as Illinois, Michigan, and Massachusetts.

In other states, it appears that a much wider range of people and communities, including many that are disproportionately white and well off, are engaged in charter school reform. Those would be: California, Arizona, Georgia. These tend to be states with more racially and ethnically and socio-economically diverse K-12 student populations, including California, Arizona, Georgia, and Alaska. We also note that these states - these are states where white enrollment is within 5 percentage points of the general public school enrollment in charter schools, or higher than - and these are actually states that enroll the majority of charter schools in the country. This is the ’98-‘99 data. You find similar patterns when you look at the West. You find that in some states that- that’s the next one.


Male in Audience:

One comment, are those the percentage point differences or percentages?


Amy Stuart Wells:

Percentage points.

Male in Audience:

Percentage points, okay.

Amy Stuart Wells:

So find you find the same thing. These are the states where low-income students are either underrepresented in charter schools compared to the general public schools population or the same within 5 percentage points. The states on the far side are where low-income students are greatly over-represented in charter schools - but again, the majority of students are in the states on this side - 69%. So when you break down the data to the state level, you’re seeing very different things happening in different places, so very different types of enrollment given the context of the states that they’re in.

And furthermore, when you break down the data to the district or the school level, it appears that charter schools are more racially and socio-economically homogeneous than nearby public schools, or at least public schools in the districts in which they’re located. And while there’s very little research that breaks down the data to lower than that to look at the community level, those studies that do, show that charter schools are more segregated than nearby public schools in their community.

Careful analysis suggests that individual charter schools are serving more students at the extreme ends of the ethnicity and socio-economic continuums. In particular, a study out of NYU (Ascher, Jacobowitz, and McBride, 1999) shows that charter schools serving mostly students of color tend to be much less racially/ethnically diverse than their districts. Similarly, while a large number of charter schools do not serve students eligible for free or reduced price lunch, in disadvantaged districts, charter schools may also serve more free and reduced price lunch students than the district average. So "closer analysis suggests that charter schools may be proliferating at both the low and the high end of the race/ethnicity, affluence/poverty continuums" (Ascher, Jacobowitz, and McBride, 1999. Research reports emerging from other states generally confirm these findings, although they show some differences in terms of the specific distinctions between charter schools in their local districts. In addition, our California study of charter schools in 10 districts and subsequent reports discussed various mechanisms charter schools use in selecting students, beginning with targeted word-of-mouth recruitment processes that can further racial and social class separation due to the segregation of these networks. We also know that 29 of the charter schools laws in the country allow charter schools to have admissions criteria. In 20 of these states, such criteria can be based on prior academic achievement. Most often such criteria are related to parent contracts or student contracts related to school policy.

We clearly need more research in these areas, but it does appear as though enrollments in charter schools are reflecting some of the age-old tendencies of resisting broader associational aspects of the theoretical common schools.

For instance, there are geographic differences that also seem important here in terms of the state enrolling higher or lower percentages of students of color. And I posit that this slight geographic pattern with states in the North, the East, and the Midwest more likely to enroll low-income students of color in charter schools and states in the South and Western part of the country are more likely to have a higher percentage of white and wealthy students in charter schools, may be an important trend to follow in terms of association and looking at who’s trying to escape from public school to charter school reform.

For instance, such trends could be related to the fact that the North, the Northeast, and upper Midwest school districts in these states tend to follow New England patterns of separate city and suburban districts. In the Southwest, you’re more likely to find larger countywide school districts that often connect inner cities with whiter suburbs. Thus it could be that in Southern and Western states, some white and more middle-class families are using charter school reform to allow them to associate with other families that more closely resemble them, particularly in the ways in which they describe their educational goals.

In more Northeastern states, I would argue there’s less need for them to do that because they already have very segregated districts. In fact, you kind of wonder why someone in Greenwich, Connecticut might want to start a charter school. They already have a charter school district. We certainly heard this refrain in our interviews with parents and educators in charter schools that I studied in California and elsewhere. For instance, an article on the Boston area charter schools cites similar attitudes on the part of parents. At this particular school, the parents must sign a contract committing themselves to the school’s philosophy, which many families identified as the key factor in choosing this particular school. According to one mother who took her daughter out of the nearby public school to enroll in the Franklin Charter School, "I know the parents here have the same mindset, the same beliefs, the same values, the same ideas. We were not guaranteed that in the public schools."

Some discussions of charter school enrollments evolved into a discussion of fit and which students, as well as families, and even teachers are a good fit in the school. These descriptions of who fits and who doesn’t rarely center explicitly around issues of race and social class. Whether they’re more likely to be couched in terms of the values and the behaviors of students. Yet, issues of race and of class are never far from the surface. In fact, what we found in perhaps the most racially diverse charter school that we’ve studied is that African-American and Latino parents - students and parents - are welcome by the whiter and wealthier parents of the school as long as they act like the middle and upper-middle class white students and that they do not take a white student’s seat in an upper level class.

For instance, a Latino school board member in one of the school districts we studied, who had some reservations about charter schools in her district (despite the relative diversity of these schools, racial diversity of these schools), said "I think diversity is valued there at the local charter high school as long as you’re middle-class in behavior and in everything else. And as long as you come with a kind of support system where you’re going to succeed regardless of where you go."

The flip side of recruiting students that "fit" a charter school’s uncommon image is the ability to get rid of those students who do not fit. This is a particularly important practice for charter schools that convert from existing public schools. We have a lot of those in California. For instance, in our California study many of the educators at one of the rural converted, conversion charter schools we studied explained that the greatest advantage of being at charter school was the ability to get rid of students they no longer wanted, namely, students who were disruptive or who were not making academic progress. One member of the school’s governing board discussed the case of a Latino student who had been asked to leave the school: (This is a predominantly white school.)

If you’re not making an effort and he’s not making an effort, then we’ve got a limited number of seats and there’s someone out there who wants to take advantage of a good system. You take your child and he can go anyplace. Now that’s kind of cold. And that’s kind of why… we maintain the ability to do that kind of thing in a loving way… So there are long discussions about how to conceptually write this [in a way] that maintains our ability to do that but does not say it in a way that would get the charter turned down.

We also saw that the racial, ethnic, and social class dimensions of these issues of association were more complicated as charter schools, even in poor communities, used the recruitment processes and some of the admissions criteria to enroll the relatively more advantaged of the disadvantaged students. Thus, we found that even charter schools serving low-income communities often had parent involvement or behavior requirements that’ll kick students out of school if their parents are unable to fulfill the contract. For instance, several of the charter schools we studied in California were located in poor areas of large urban school districts. These schools definitely served low-income students of color, but they were also serving the low-income and working class families who are able to drive their children to school each day and able to fulfill the parent involvement contract that dictated they do volunteer work at the school several hours a month. In one of these schools, virtually all the students were drawn from a single elementary school that served the more mixed, poor, and working class student population. The word-of-mouth recruitment strategies insured that only parents at this particular school knew about the specifics and the deadlines for applying to the charter school.



Thus charter school reform may have simply added another layer to an already stratified system, allowing those parents and families who traditionally have had less choice about issues of association to now have more. On the other hand, the ___ backlash against assimilation is the theme of the common school movement; some charter school reformers have clearly engaged in this reform for the purpose of empowerment in terms of what they teach and how.

In a Harvard Educational Review article I co-authored with Lopez, Scott, and Holme (Wells, Lopez, Scott, and Holme, 1999), we talk about charter schools serving as home places for educators and families who became disconnected from and disempowered within the traditional state run system.

For example, a woman who helped to found an ethnocentric charter school in a poor urban school district explained that "the decision to start a charter school was made in the community meeting when speaker after speaker- older adults as well as young- thought that maybe we need to have our own schools, we need to decide our own curriculum, we can decide how our children are going to learn and what they’re going to learn."

The same charter school founders discussed sitting in on a number of curriculum committees in the local district in trying to make it different, a difference in terms of how the history and culture of her racial group was taught at the public school. She failed to make progress in this arena and she began to ask herself as she quoted a colleague who told her that "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and thinking it will come out different." Her frustration with the district was the impetus for her founding of the ethnocenter charter school.

Similar stories have emerged from other charter schools in low-income communities, but the resistance to assimilation within the charter school movement is broader than that and includes the frustration that many charter school educators express about being held accountable for one state imposed assessment system. In many ways, the resistance to common school curriculum and assimilation in the year 2000 is reflected in frustration where the system that frees schools bureaucratically but ties them to mandated outcome measures. In our study, libertarian entrepreneurs and the religious right home schoolers all resisted what they perceived to be the hegemony of the state imposed accountability system. The reason why they have engaged in this reform to begin with was to avoid teaching a state-mandated curriculum. Nowhere was this frustration more evident than in New York City where two alternative high schools that had been exempt from administering Regents exams converted into charter schools only to find that they lost the waiver from the Regents.

In this way, charter school reform, which born out of systemic reform and the received trade-off of autonomy for accountability, may actually be the reform in which the delegate balance has proved impossible. It may well be highly unrealistic to free educators to teach as they see fit while trying to dictate through state mandated assessments what should be covered in the curriculum.

Thus, while charter school reform is relatively new, my analysis of existing data suggests that frustrations and resistance towards the common schools that are manifest in this movement are not new. They are part of an ongoing struggle by both the privileged and the marginalized to create uncommon schools. Both are connected to larger issues of power, culture, and control in our highly unequal capitalist society.

Some voucher proponents argued that a voucher system would lead to more school level and neighborhood diversity by breaking the link between residence and school enrollment. Yet charter school reform, which is also a choice program partly designed to disentangle neighborhood residence from school enrollment, shows that thus far this is not the case. It shows that deregulated school choice policies that give schools a great deal of flexibility in whom they enroll may attract more common school discontents. Research on similar school choice programs in other countries suggests that this is the case elsewhere and that the more deregulated and free market school choice policy is, the more racial, ethnic, and class stratification it will foster.

In fact, a 1998 Phi Delta Kappan article titled "Choice and Compulsion," noted "That those who debate the pros and cons of school choice have missed the central point. Parents want to send their children to schools that are free not to teach all children (McGhan, 1998, p. 610).

Hopefully a renewed debate on the common school and its role in serving the common good will address these real and powerful issues as they are manifest in one of the most popular educational reform movements of our time. Clearly what we have learned from charter school reform is that parents and students left to their own devices within a segregated and stratified society will more often than not choose uncommon schools. This does not mean that policies can’t be constructed to support those of us who would like to create more common schools. But clearly such policies must be bold and draw on public sentiments that value diversity. Crafters of such policies must take into consideration the age-old resistance to common schools and thus strive to reverse more than 150 years of American educational history.


Ascher, C., R. Jacobowitz, and Y. McBride. (1999). Charter school access: a preliminary analysis of charter school legislation and charter school students. New York: Institute for Education and Social Policy, New York University.

McGhan, Barry. (1998). Choice and compulsion: The end of an era. Phi Delta Kappan, 79, 610-612.

Wells, A.S., J.J. Holme, A. Lopez, and C.W. Cooper. (2000). Charter schools and racial and social class segregation: Yet another shorting machine?" In R. Kahlenberg (ed.) A Notion at Risk: Preserving Public Education as an Engine for Social Mobility. New York: The Century Foundation Press.

Wells, A.S., A. Lopez, J. Scott, and J.J. Holme. (1999). Charter schools as postmodern paradox: Rethinking social stratification in an age of deregulated school choice. Harvard Educational Review, 69, 172-204.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 02, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10632, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 6:38:31 PM

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