Analysis: Charter schools have made segregation worse in Albany
When Rebekah Brisbane decided to send her daughter to a charter school, it wasn’t because her district schools had failed her — not academically, at least.
Her daughter was bright, an honor roll student who won a presidential academic award of excellence and was attending one of the most well-regarded suburban schools in the Capital Region.
But her daughter is also black, and the school was mostly white. So after years of being passed over for birthday parties and sleepovers, of striving to fit in socially and culturally, of ignoring “accidental” racist remarks, the Brisbanes decided it was time to send Xiomara elsewhere.
“When we decided to enroll in Albany Leadership Charter High School for Girls, our educational experience really changed for the better,” Brisbane said. “There was a strong sense of inclusion that we had never received before. Our school truly became an extension of the family.”
Charter schools are typically characterized as an alternative to failing public schools, chosen solely for their academic bona fides, but in the Capital Region and beyond they’ve increasingly become a safe haven for students of color. And according to an Associated Press analysis of enrollment data nationwide, charter schools are far more likely than traditional public schools to be extremely racially segregated.
While 4 percent of traditional public schools enrolled a student body that was 99 percent minority in 2014-15, the figure jumped to 17 percent for charters. In cities, where most charters are located, 10 percent of traditional schools were 99 percent nonwhite compared to 25 percent of charters. In the Capital Region, the picture is similar: charter schools top the list of schools where students are all or mostly one race.
At Albany Leadership, 306 students were black, 36 students were Hispanic and 12 students were white in 2014. At Kipp Tech Valley Charter School, 243 students were black, 29 were Hispanic and 10 were white. At Green Tech High Charter School, 327 students were black, 12 were Hispanic and 6 were white. And at Albany Community Charter School, 596 students were black, 34 were Hispanic and just eight were white.
The problem? Those levels of segregation correspond with low achievement levels at schools of all kinds. Decades of research show that schools with high percentages of minority students historically have fewer resources, less experienced teachers and lower levels of achievement.
But charter school advocates and families reject the idea that charter schools have contributed to re-segregation, or that modern segregation reflected in charter school enrollment is anything like that of the Jim Crow era, when blacks were barred from attending certain schools.
“Modern schools of choice with high concentrations of students of color is a demonstration of parents choosing the best schools for their children, rooted in the belief that the school will meet their child’s educational needs, and often based on demonstrated student success,” said National Alliance for Public Charter Schools spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi. “This is not segregation.”
The city school district in Albany is already majority black: in 2014, 61 percent of students identified as black, 16.7 percent identified as white, 15.2 percent identified as Hispanic and 7.3 percent identified as Asian. It’s not unusual then, charters point out, that their representation of black students would be so high.
Academic success, however, remains mixed at Capital Region charter schools, which first started cropping up in 2000 as tuition-free alternatives to district schools. The publicly funded, privately run schools are allowed to exist free of most bureaucracy and regulation so long as they outperform the district schools in their area.
Albany hit its charter school peak in 2010 with a total of 12 charters up and running. But years of mediocre academic outcomes and financial issues caused several to shutter. Today, there are just seven charter schools in Albany and one in Troy.
Among those still standing, outcomes are mixed: Green Tech High, for example, consistently outperforms all other schools in the district, including other charters, while Albany Community Charter School trails a majority of district and charter schools in academic performance, according to the Associated Press analysis of 2014 enrollment and test scores.
Green Tech High Principal and CEO Paul Miller says outcomes are the primary reason why families choose his all-boys school, where 97 percent of the students are black.
“We have a 95 percent graduation rate, a 100 percent college acceptance rate and hand out almost $7 million in scholarship money,” he said. “So when families look at us, they look at us because we are successful, because we are free, and because we’re in a neighborhood that’s convenient for their child to get to. I don’t believe it has to do with race; it has to do with results.”
The issue of neighborhood underlies much of the debate around re-segregation.
Segregated schools are often the result of segregated neighborhoods, which are the result of longstanding housing and economic practices. It’s unfair, educators say, to place the burden entirely on schools to fix such a deep-rooted problem.
For decades after the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional, integration was held up as a key measure of progress for minorities. But school integration gains achieved over the second half of the last century have been reversed in many places over the last 20 years, and a growing number of schools educate students who are poor and mostly black or Hispanic, according to federal data.
The re-segregation has been blamed on the effects of charters and school choice, the lapse of court-ordered desegregation plans in many cities, and housing and economic trends.
Charter schools enroll more than 2.7 million nationwide, a number that has tripled over the last decade. Meanwhile, as the number of non-charter schools holds steady in the U.S., charters account for nearly all the growth of schools where minorities face the most extreme racial isolation.
“The flip side of this is you never hear segregation couched as a problem when schools are majority white,” said S. Neal Currie, Jr., executive director of Albany Community Charter School. “When you do hear that it’s a problem, you hear it because — I think — the problem for some is that you have too many black kids in one place.”
Black families have increasingly chosen charter schools, he points out, because black families are the ones most affected by failing school systems.
When it comes to graduation rates, test scores, dropout rates, college completion rates and most other measures of achievement, white students have historically performed far and above their black and Hispanic peers, thanks to generations of better schools, more experienced teachers and higher family incomes, research shows.
Before charter schools, advocates point out, the alternative for most families who were failed by the system were private schools — an option many black families could not afford.
“We don’t think it’s right that if a student is African-American their chances of going to college are smaller,” Currie said. “So to then turn around and say, ‘Well the schools are re-segregated and charters are the problem’ — no, the problem is the disproportionate rate at which schools have been failing these kids. Charters aren’t a panacea. They’re not a silver bullet. But for many families, they have been a great alternative.”
firstname.lastname@example.org • 518-454-5387 • @bethanybump The Associated Press contributed to this report.