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Friday, March 10, 2017

Integrated charters have grown quickly - but not quickly enough

Last week, the Star Tribune reported on the rapid growth of Minnesota's charter schools. We've spent a couple days following up on this report. One of the first things we looked at is how this growth breaks down across different demographic categories of schools: white, integrated, segregated, and hypersegregated.

What we found was a somewhat paradoxical pattern. Integrated charters have grown more quickly than other types - but new segregated schools are opening even faster, ensuring that most new enrollment is in segregated environments.

Out of all charters already open in 2013, enrollment growth was most rapid at integrated schools, which we defined as those with student bodies between 20 and 60 percent nonwhite. These schools added, in absolute terms, nearly twice as many students as charters in any other demographic category. This is especially impressive when one considers that racially integrated schools only accounted for 13 percent of all charter enrollment. In all, their total growth rate was 27 percent. Meanwhile, the most-segregated charters - those where virtually all children were white or nonwhite - grew extremely slowly, despite accounting for nearly for over three-quarters of total enrollment.

But over the past five years, the majority of enrollment gains in Minnesota charters have not come from the growth of preexisting schools. Instead, approximately 60 percent of all increases have come from the opening of new schools. And among these schools, a very different pattern is evident.

A substantial majority of newly opened charters are segregated. Nearly half the students at new charters attend what we've termed "hypersegregated" schools, where less than ten percent of students are white. All-in-all, 56 percent of the enrollment gains in new charters were in a nonwhite segregated environment.

These findings can be seen in the graphs below (click to enlarge):


The following table shows the same data, in absolute terms.



While many things might contribute to this pattern, we suspect that it is caused at least in part by the reality that different forces are contributing to enrollment changes in each group.

Parental preferences are likely to be a primary factor in enrollment change at existing schools. Although charters do occasionally undergo major internal changes after years of operation, existing schools are, for the most part, stable environments - their focus, location, and pedagogical approach already established. Growth will occur in schools that more students are trying to attend; enrollment declines will occur when few parents are interested in enrolling.

School integration is often a hot topic politically, but in practice, parents exposed to integrated traditional schools tend to appreciate the advantages of diversity. Integration provides myriad academic and social benefits, and parents notice. It is therefore no surprise to see signs of similar dynamics in the more competition-oriented charter sector: integrated schools, their bona fides demonstrated, seem to thrive in comparison to their segregated peers.

Parental demand, however, is only one of many factors affecting when new charter schools open, and what those new schools look like. Other considerations include resource availability, the state regulatory environment, and the ease of designing a school and business model that will receive sufficient political and financial backing.

Across the nation, the process of opening a new charter has grown more standardized over time, in part because minor industries have grown up to assist charter founders with each element of their schools' operation. Specialist companies are ready and eager to provide everything from facility construction to website design. Many new charters follow one of a handful of well-established "templates," casting themselves in the mold of existing institutions. As a result of these trends, new charters can look sometimes more like franchises than unique institutions carefully tailored to local needs.

As our latest report documented, a particularly successful form of charter school is what we have dubbed the "poverty academy": highly-segregated, high-poverty schools which purport to target the most disadvantaged students with "compensatory" academic instruction. These schools have shown limited educational success - they are as likely to underperform expectations as overperform them, and integrated schools produce more consistent academic gains. But poverty academies have nonetheless proven to be a great hit among policymakers and funders, promising to close the achievement gap and help the neediest students without raising politically difficult questions about segregation or resource allocation.

We suspect that the massive growth of enrollment in hypersegregated environments among new schools reflects the popularity of the poverty academy model. For parents, diversity and integration is appealing. But for politicians, foundations, and educational support companies, narrowly targeted poverty academies are an easier sell. And when it comes time to start a new school, it's clear parents are rarely calling the shots.

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