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Choosing Charters: Better Schools or More Segregation?

reviewed by Anna J. Egalite & M. Daniela Barriga - July 02, 2018

coverTitle: Choosing Charters: Better Schools or More Segregation?
Author(s): Iris C. Rotberg & Joshua L. Glazer (Eds.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807759007, Pages: 264, Year: 2018
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Iris Rotberg and Joshua Glazer have assembled a thought-provoking and timely volume on the topic of charter schools’ impact on diversity in education. The heterogeneity of a school’s student body is considered in terms of many different dimensions, including race, ethnicity, income, disability status, English language proficiency, culture, and religion, setting the stage for future research studies to continue tracking whether traditional public and public charter schools are becoming isolated along these lines. The contributing authors tackle tough questions, such as whether charter schools do an adequate job of supporting and serving students with special educational needs, the ways in which a school’s approach to student discipline can shape the composition of its student body, and the financial impact of chartering on district schools with significant fixed costs. A strength of the book’s approach is that the various contributors consider this issue at the intersection of other contemporary education reforms, including personalized learning models enabled by education technology and the "achievement school district" model, which has been implemented in Tennessee, North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Nevada. A weakness, however, is that the book could benefit from a more wide-ranging treatment of the broader social issues associated with poverty that cannot be solved by education policy alone.

Jeffrey Henig skillfully sets the scene by situating the growth of charter schools in the context of three concurrent political developments: a shift away from local control of schools, an emphasis on high-stakes accountability, and the rise of general purpose politicians. He astutely notes that while the rise of charter schools coincided with these trends, charter schools were not the cause of these broader political developments that upended the education landscape and transferred power away from those actors and groups that were accustomed to holding it. Henig’s astute observations in this early chapter should serve as an important reminder for the reader not to scapegoat charter schools when considering concurrent political changes in the education landscape.

In the chapters that follow, the authors accurately identify the major issues facing America's children: extreme poverty, declining neighborhoods, family instability, and stratification of individuals along multiple lines. These are big societal problems with no single cause and no easy solutions. Addressing these issues will require an alignment of health, economic, and education policy, and a comprehensive suite of family supports, yet the volume’s contributors spend too little time discussing what this alignment might look like. Instead, they focus exclusively on evaluating charter schools regarding their progress towards addressing complex issues driven by national trends that extend far beyond the influence of education policy. There’s inadequate attention given to the patterns of racial isolation in housing, for example, or to the changing demographics of public school populations. By all means, an education reform such as charter schooling should be evaluated for its impact on educational outcomes, but it seems too high a standard to determine their effectiveness based on how well they alone have impacted all the inequities that exist in the United States.

In Chapter Twelve, Jennifer Ayscue and Erica Frankenberg offer helpful advice on how school policy can be modified to explicitly promote diversity by drawing lessons from cases where charter schools have not increased segregation. Likewise, Brenda Shum’s Chapter Ten is a helpful resource that reminds the reader of all the civil rights protections that must be afforded to students in charter schools. In Chapter Thirteen, Henry Levin provides the book’s philosophical framework, which is presented as private choice versus the public good. Levin contrasts those policies that privilege private preferences for educational choice with those that serve the public good by preparing future generations for participation in a democratic society, effectively drawing our attention to the trade-offs involved in different education governance models. He states, “school choice through charter schools favors private preferences relative to educational needs for creating a society in which democratic participation is required” (p. 199). It may be the case, however, that Levin provides too simple of a framework. Private educational preferences can also include a desire to prepare children to become engaged participants in economic, social, and political institutions; these two spheres are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as Levin claims.  

A recurring theme in this volume is the lack of policy safeguards to prevent segregation in charter schools. Wagma Mommandi and Kevin Welner describe how charter school recruitment practices can be designed to attract relatively advantaged families and how discipline policy can be wielded to weed out troubled students who are already enrolled. In Chapter Six, Gordon Lafer describes the impact of these practices: “The charter industry is building a new system of segregated education­—divided by class and geography rather than explicitly by race” (p. 92). It is worth acknowledging, however, that some of the barriers that make it difficult for low-income or rural students to enroll in charter schools are policy artifacts arising from the structure of state charter school laws and funding streams, as opposed to barriers deliberately constructed by charter school leadership teams to shape the student body. The availability of funding for school transportation to charter schools is one such example of a barrier with an obvious policy solution. A deeper consideration of the many other ways in which charter policy can be tweaked to offset undesirable outcomes such as this would have greatly added to the book’s value.

Throughout the volume, the term “segregation” is employed, which is a historically loaded term that implies an enforced separation of groups. The phenomenon described in this edited volume is certainly troubling in that it can result in a reduction in peer group diversity, but the mechanisms driving this voluntary process are vastly different from the forces that oversaw the maintenance of separate schools in the past, and our language should reflect that. We suggest that "stratification" would be a more accurate description of the phenomenon under consideration in this edited volume.

As the book draws to a close, a key question remains, which is why so many low-socioeconomic and minority families choose to enroll in charter schools, even if they are highly segregated or employ a “no excuses” approach to discipline and learning, which the book criticizes. None of the authors address this question in detail, but better understanding the forces that drive parents’ decision making is essential to fully understanding the desire for greater school choice and to crafting better education policies.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 02, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22415, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 6:02:20 PM

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About the Author
  • Anna Egalite
    North Carolina State University
    E-mail Author
    ANNA J. EGALITE is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at North Carolina State University. Her research focuses on the evaluation of education policies and programs intended to close racial and economic achievement gaps. Her studies have examined school choice policy, school size, the influence of family background on intergenerational economic mobility, and the diversification of the teacher labor force.
  • M. Daniela Barriga
    North Carolina State University
    E-mail Author
    M. DANIELA BARRIGA recently received her MS in Sociology from Brigham Young University and is an incoming doctoral student in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis program at North Carolina State University. Her research interests include educational equity, school choice, race and ethnicity, and immigration. Her research investigates how Latino, Polynesian, and white families who face social and economic disadvantages make school decisions.
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