Reconsidering the charter school segregation narrative

Two years after an Associated Press story went viral, a new Chalkbeat story highlights the need to reconsider previous coverage.

By Jessicah Lahitou

In December of 2017, the Associated Press (AP) published a report on racial segregation within charter schools that would quickly become one of the more controversial pieces of education journalism in recent memory.

Headlined “US charters put growing numbers in racial isolation,” the story conveyed a sense of emergency over purportedly “extreme” racial segregation happening in American charter schools.

According to the AP report, just 4 percent of traditional public schools had a 99 percent non-white student population. For charter schools, 17 percent fell into the same category.

The story was picked up widely and it continues to pop up in all sorts of places nearly two years later. Most recently, it was spotted as part of the campaign website of a major Democratic presidential candidate.

However, an article published last week at Chalkbeat on the same issue raises some timely questions about the role of charter schools and segregation and how this important topic gets covered.

Headlined “Do charters further segregate America’s schools? Yes, new study says, but most blame lies elsewhere,” the Chalkbeat writeup notes that, according to the new study, the impact of charter schools on segregation is quite small. “If charters were to vanish tomorrow, segregation in school districts across the country would fall by 5 to 7 percent.”

There are some notable similarities between the two pieces. But the tone, approach, and conclusions contrast dramatically. As you will see, the Chalkbeat story does a much better job of presenting the connection between charter schools and racial segregation in several crucial ways.

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According to the AP, localized versions of its 2017 story were produced by Southern California Public Radio, The Detroit News, the Bangor Daily News in Maine, the Times Union in Albany, New York, and The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio.

Starting in the early 1990s, charter schools grew dramatically, as bipartisan D.C. support lined up behind the little “labs” idea of educational experimentation.

But with wildly varying academic results, high initial rates of teacher turnover, and the perceived threat to teachers unions posed by the charter model, fast-growing charter schools eventually become a politically divisive issue.

Adding to the controversy has been the reality that charter schools enroll a disproportionately high number of minority students; many were founded with the explicit purpose of offering minority families an alternative to neighborhood public schools.

It was no surprise, then, that the 2017 AP story set off a brawl. It kicked off with the alarming headline “US charters put growing numbers in racial isolation,” suggesting not only that charter school students were segregated but that charters might be complicit in contributing to segregation.

Lead reporter Ivan Moreno’s first eight ensuing paragraphs maintained a similar tone of almost hysterical urgency. Charters were described in the second paragraph as schools where minority students dwelt in “racial isolation” of the “most extreme” variety.

The AP report also used a snapshot — comparing the racial make-up of charter schools with public schools at just one moment in time. But, as Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum would point out two years later, this approach “doesn’t show whether school systems are made more segregated because of charters.”

There was no real attempt to put the small percentage of American students who attend charters in perspective. Even if you accept the AP numbers at face value, the number of kids in highly segregated traditional public schools is four times the number of kids in segregated charters.

Additionally, some of the cited evidence was not well-explained, and at times comes across as contradictory. Moreno writes in the 4th paragraph that “decades of research” prove minority students in segregated schools perform worse academically. In the 9th paragraph, he notes highly segregated charter schools do “marginally better” than district ones on state assessments. Not until the 30th paragraph does he reveal that “marginally better” means 10 percentage points more students reaching proficiency — hardly a negligible gap in academic results.

To be fair, AP stories usually involve a strong, dramatic opening. And Moreno’s story did include a respectable amount of nuance further down in the story. For example, Moreno observed that segregated charter schools may be preferable for some minority students over “traditional public schools that are sometimes seen as hostile environments.” But that’s assuming a reader made it past the headline and the first several paragraphs.

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Chalkbeat’s recent coverage of the new Urban Institute study on charter schools and segregation

The AP report generated plenty of criticism at the time of its publication. But in terms of media impact, there were plenty of outlets that helped spread the AP storyline, including USA Today, The Root, CBS, and MPR.

It was not until last week’s Chalkbeat story that the charter school segregation storyline got the journalistic reconsideration it warranted.

It is with a remarkably different approach that Chalkbeat’s Barnum described a new study’s findings on the very same topic.

From the headline on down, relevant information is conveyed in a matter-of-fact tone that falls recognizably in the lineage of traditional journalism.

Barnum spends his first few paragraphs providing background on the issue of segregation as a problem that may or may not be tied in unique ways to charters.

He even references the aforementioned AP report and its subsequent rebuttals from pro-charter advocates.

Then he introduces the latest findings from a study by the Urban Institute, noting pertinent facts such as the concentration of non-white students in urban areas and quoting Brian Kisida, a researcher from the University of Missouri who worked on the Urban Institute study, observing that if charter schools were to be eradicated overnight, “Ninety-five percent of the segregation is still there.”

Barnum gives the final word to Ann Owens of the University of Southern California, who notes that a 5-7 percent difference in school segregation is meaningful. “There’s plenty more opportunity for segregation to continue to increase or be sustained by charters,” notes Owens. That’s a fair point and a credit to Barnum for including it in his piece.

“The growth of charter schools has caused small increases in segregation for black and Hispanic students with school districts, cities, and counties,” according to the Education Next writeup by the study authors. “Across metropolitan areas, however, charter growth has not had a statistically significant effect on segregation.”

Segregation in America’s schools — be they public, private, charter, or otherwise — is a worthy subject for education journalism.

The media narrative that insists charter schools aid and abet segregation has become a regular feature of education journalism.

The consequences of how the media covers charter school segregation are by no means theoretical. In a recent report for the New York Times, Dana Goldstein and Sydney Ember note that presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders refers to the 2017 AP article on his presidential campaign website as a rationale for stopping more charter schools from opening.

Sanders’s invocation of the flawed 2017 AP story ought to give the whole field of education journalism pause. An outsized critical focus on charter schools does the nation’s minority students no favors, especially if the vast majority of segregation is occurring within traditional public schools.

The Urban Institute study doesn’t tell a simple, dramatic story, which may be why Chalkbeat was the only outlet that decided to write about it so far (beyond the study writeup published in Education Next).

The Chalkbeat writeup isn’t written to set off heart palpitations. It will almost certainly struggle to generate a comparably enormous media response. But it is more accurate, and more responsible.

When new data on charter schools and segregation does roll in, education journalists would do well to emulate Barnum’s form — report the facts, provide the context, maintain a restrained tone, and let the story stand on its own.

Related Posts

Rocky start for ProPublica ‘alternative schools’ series

A cautionary tale about linking school choice and segregation (by Gail Cornwall)

What the Hechinger Report story gets right – and misses – about disproportionately white charter schools

Jessicah Lahitou is a a former teacher who writes on education for The Good Men Project. She has previously worked as a newswriter for Bustle, and enjoys penning occasional pop culture essays as well. You can follow her at @jesslahitou.

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