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Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity Releases Study on Charter Schools

OCTOBER 9, 2013—The Law School's Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity (IMO) today released "Charter Schools in the Twin Cities: 2013 Update," a new study showing that Twin Cities charter schools underperform traditional public schools and continue to be highly segregated by race and income.

Two studies in 2008 and 2012 by the IMO showed that after two decades of experience, most charter schools in the Twin Cities still underperformed comparable traditional public schools and were highly segregated by race and income. New work, which both updates and supplements the previous studies with data for 2012-13, shows that little has changed in the years since the original studies. The new study showed:

  • Charters still lag behind their traditional counterparts academically and remain more highly segregated by race and income.
  • There is also a growing pattern in the suburbs of predominantly white charter schools locating near to more racially diverse traditional schools. Whether by intent or not, more and more suburban charters are facilitating white flight from increasingly diverse traditional schools in the suburbs.
  • Finally, the report documents the substantial role that charters have played in enrollment declines in Minneapolis and St. Paul, declines that have contributed to fiscal difficulties in the districts that serve more economically disadvantaged students than any others in the state.

"The question is whether charters are the best path available to find ways to better serve low-income students and students of color, given that this approach has consistently increased segregation in the region's schools while, at the same time, failing to improve overall student performance," said Professor Myron Orfield, Director of the IMO.

Spreading Segregation in Charter Schools
This study, like the earlier IMO studies, shows that a very high proportion of charters are essentially single-race schools. In sharp contrast with the traditional system, where the percentage of schools that are integrated has increased steadily, the share of integrated charter schools has been stagnant. As a result, charter school students of all races are still much more likely to be attending segregated schools than their counterparts in traditional schools, and the gaps are widening. For instance, in 2012-13, 88 percent of black charter students attended segregated schools, up from 81 percent in 2000-01. By comparison, just 44 percent of black students in traditional public schools in the metro were in segregated settings, down from 56 percent in 2000-01. Hispanic and Asian charter students were also roughly twice as likely to be in segregated settings as their traditional school counterparts in 2012-13.

Recent trends also show a disturbing pattern in the suburbs. The number of predominantly white suburban charters is increasing and many are located in areas near traditional schools that are relatively diverse by suburban standards. The total number of predominantly white charters in the suburbs grew by 40 percent in the five years from 2007-08 to 2012-13, and suburban charters were much more likely to be significantly less racially diverse than nearby traditional schools. In 2008, only 20 percent of predominantly white suburban charters had white student percentages more than five percentage points higher than the traditional school(s) within whose attendance boundary they were located. However, by 2012-13, 54 percent met this condition. Whether by intent or not, more and more suburban charters are facilitating white flight from increasingly diverse traditional schools in the suburbs.

"The increasing incidence of predominantly white charters near traditional schools that are economically and racially diverse—schools that are particularly vulnerable to rapid economic and racial change—makes maintaining stably integrated schools even more difficult than it already is," said Tom Luce, IMO's Research Director.

Lagging Test Scores
Charters are also still outperformed by traditional schools on test scores. In fact, the analysis shows that charters have taken a step backward since 2010-11. One group of about10 charters serving high-poverty student populations has exhibited relatively strong results in the testing data. However, this group—the charters consistently highlighted in in press reports and by charter advocates as "beat the odds" schools—is more than offset by an even larger number of high-poverty charters with testing results well below what would be expected given their poverty rates. Overall, charters performing relatively poorly—schools with pass rates more than five points lower than expected given their poverty rates—serve 3,400 to 5,600 more students (depending on the test subject) than their high-performing counterparts.

Effects on Minneapolis and St. Paul
Finally, the report documents how the charter system has placed enormous stress on the two districts that serve the greatest numbers of the region's most economically disadvantaged students. Minneapolis and St. Paul have each had to deal with the costs associated with major enrollment declines in the last decade and charters have contributed 50 to 60 percent of those losses. School districts losing students must devote effort and resources to deal with the costs of decline, often to the detriment of other educational priorities. The Minneapolis and St. Paul School Districts have spent the last 10-15 years dealing with one fiscal crisis after another, crises due in significant part to enrollment losses to charter schools.

The study is available on the Institute's website at www.law.umn.edu/metro.