Charter schools in North Carolina are more segregated than traditional public schools and have more affluent students.
Most charters have either a largely white population or a largely minority population, according to a News & Observer analysis. On the whole, charter schools are more white and less Latino than schools run by local districts.
In North Carolina school districts, slightly more than half the students come from low-income families. But in charter schools, one in three students are low-income.
Charters weren’t supposed to look like this. The 1996 state law that allowed charters required that, within one year of the schools opening, their populations would reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the school district.
The law defined one of the purposes of charters: increasing opportunities to learn for all students, with a special emphasis on students who are at risk of academic failure or those who are academically gifted.
The original charter law was the product of a bipartisan compromise brokered by a House Republican and a Senate Democrat. The requirements for racial and ethnic diversity were the authors’ response to worries of charter opponents that the schools would cherry-pick the best students, said former Rep. Steve Wood, the Republican who negotiated the law.
“Opponents were concerned there would be creaming across the top,” Wood said. The diversity requirement is “a laudable goal,” he said. “Some of us said it may not be a completely achievable goal.” The original law also capped charters at 100 schools.
The charter school law has been rewritten many times in the last two decades, including a major and extensively-debated change that removed the 100-school cap. Diversity is still mentioned, but it’s no longer a requirement. A 2013 law dropped the mandate and diluted the language so charters must “make efforts” to reflect the local school districts’ racial and ethnic composition.
Wib Gulley, a Democrat and former state senator who co-authored the 1996 law, said the diversity requirement was important, and charters should have lived up to it.
“It was a key provision that was meant to ensure that the charter schools didn’t segregate in some way and did not take only students from wealthy families and that kind of thing,” Gulley said. “If that’s the result even for one school, it is an undermining of the fundamental intent of the law. It perverts the premise of charter schools in a way that we never wanted and that both houses of the legislature voted to say would not happen.”
Wood, however, said the schools’ results matter more than who attends.
“I’m not sure there’s anyone who’s ever been born who has the perfect formula for how many white kids, how many black kids, how many Hispanic kids, how many illegal immigrant kids, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera have to be in the classroom” to get the best education, he said.
Darrell Allison, executive director of the pro-school choice group Parents for Educational Freedom, said comparing traditional and charter schools creates a distorted picture because charters don’t have the resources districts do to create diverse schools.
Charters do not receive capital funds to buy buses and many don’t offer student transportation. The state needs to get serious about paying for charter buses if it wants low-income students to have more school choices, Allison said.
Lack of transportation is an impediment to students whose parents don’t have cars or have work schedules that prevent them from driving their children to school.
Parental choice drives charter enrollment, he said. Some charters are mostly made up of black students because black parents seek out schools that are run by African-Americans, or those that employ black male teachers, Allison said.
“We have to take into consideration where we are as a society,” he said. “We talk to a number of families of color, where 70 percent or higher are single-parent. They are actively looking for good educational institutions. They are also looking for Afro-American role models, particularly for their Afro-American boys.”
More wealthy students
Wealthier students are enrolling in charters at a greater pace than low-income students.
A study by the pro-charter American Enterprise Institute found that charter schools in North Carolina serve dramatically fewer poor students than the five traditional public schools that are their closest neighbors. North Carolina stands out in that measure compared to most other states, said Nat Malkus, the author of the report.
“When you look at these poverty numbers, they are just jaw dropping,” Malkus said.
Malkus’ study looked at charters in 2012, before a charter school boom initiated by the elimination of the 100-school limit in 2011.
More recent state data show charters continue to draw greater proportions of wealthier students. Information from the federal Title I program shows that 33 percent of students enrolled in charters in the 2016-2017 school year were low-income, compared to 53 percent in traditional public schools.
Charters aren’t cherry-picking students, but it’s hard for them to defend against that charge, Allison said. Popular charters must use lotteries to pick students because there are many more applicants than seats.
“Unlike traditional public schools, families whose children attend a public charter school are not artificially zoned into one,” he said in an email. “Every family must work (take action) to enroll their child into a public charter school. On the traditional school side of the ledger, the proverbial pencil, pen or marker has been and will continue to be a tool used to manage and arrive at an acceptable racial/socio-economic level.”
In Durham, Charlene Reiss enrolled her daughters in a district elementary school, E.K. Powe, which has a mix of black, white, and Latino students. Her younger daughter is in fifth grade, and her older daughter is a seventh grader at Lakewood Montessori Middle School.
Reiss toured six Durham schools before deciding on E.K. Powe. Finding a school with a diverse student population and services for academically or intellectually gifted students was important.
Powe didn’t look great on paper when the state started handing out letter grades, Reiss acknowledged. Its performance grades were Ds for three years. Powe improved last year — earning a C — and with academic growth exceeding expectations.
Still, the school’s letter grade “doesn’t take in to account the whole environment of that school and how the kids are being cared for, how they’re being turned into good human beings versus good test-takers,” said Reiss, who is white. “Powe has this amazing environment where every child is cared for and loved and accepted for exactly who that child is.”
Reiss disdains the state system of performance grades, which emphasize test scores over how much students learn each year. She said the grades were designed to discredit traditional public schools and drive people to charters and vouchers that pay tuition at private schools.
“The charter schools are pulling away white middle-class and upper-middle-class families,” she said. “Some are pulling away more involved black families. It’s leaving people with the fewest resources and the highest needs in public schools.”
Tom Benton, former chairman of the Wake County school board, sees the racial imbalance at schools in his town of Zebulon.
East Wake Academy, a K-12 charter in Zebulon, was more than 80 percent white in 2016-17, while district schools in the town were mostly black and Hispanic.
At Zebulon Middle School, a traditional public school less than a half-mile from East Wake Academy, 71 percent of its students were black or Hispanic while 23 percent were white. The demographics are much the same in Zebulon’s elementary schools.
Students who attend East Wake Academy tend to come from more affluent families: 18 percent of its students are low-income. At neighboring Zebulon Middle School, two-thirds of the students are low-income.
Charters can seal themselves from their surroundings by not offering transportation or student meals, Benton said, creating conditions in which they become enclaves for students who have the fewest needs and cost the least to educate.
“Charters have opened the doors to us resegregating our schools,” he said. “At some point, I think we need to have a serious public policy debate about how do we weigh this thing of parental choice, when parental choice allows us to resegregate our schools.”
Mike Lester, chairman of the East Wake Academy board, said the school has an “open-door policy,” and having a a school that’s more than 80 percent white “has never been our goal.”
Lester, who lives in Franklin County, has been on the charter board of East Wake Academy for a dozen years. In the school’s early days, the school was posting flyers looking for students. Now it chooses students by lottery and gives an admission preference to the siblings of existing students as allowed under the charter school law. The school does not offer transportation or free and discounted meals. It enrolls students from five counties, he said.
“I know we do have a number of economically disadvantaged families,” Lester said. “A lot of parents make the decision to come regardless.”
One purpose of creating charters was to encourage independent schools that specialized in teaching students at a higher risk of failing or dropping out.
In Durham, several independent charters have as their mission providing a high-quality education to low-income students.
Charter performance in Durham mirrors the statewide performance: schools with large concentrations of economically disadvantaged students have lower scores on standardized tests than do schools where students are wealthier.
A News & Observer analysis of end-of-grade test scores for 3rd to 8th graders in 2016-17 in reading and math shows younger low-income charter students performed as well as students from low-income families in traditional schools. But among low-income students in middle-school grades, charter students showed higher proficiency rates.
Maureen Joy Charter School, a K-8 school that opened in Durham in 1997, is one of the oldest in the state. It was founded to educate students who were not being well-served in traditional public schools.
Its 640 students learn in a renovated public school building. The floors gleam and sunlight floods the hallways through large windows. Students wear uniforms of light blue shirts, dark blue pants and black shoes. Classroom doors are adorned with the covers of teachers’ favorite books.
The school cannot admit all students who want to come. Thirty-five of the school’s 58 kindergarteners are siblings of current students, said director Mark Bailey.
The school wasn’t always as popular.
About nine years ago, its former director, Alex Quigley, had to figure out how to attract more students to fill an under-enrolled school.
“I knew the Hispanic population in Durham was in a growth phase,” said Quigley, chairman of the state Charter School Advisory Board. Quigley is now principal at Healthy Start Academy in Durham.
“My experience has been that Latino students, recent immigrants, children that have parents who don’t speak English as a first language, children who don’t speak English as a first language, are systematically underserved in our school systems in this country. So why not try to better serve them?”
The main hurdle, he said, was letting people know the school was free. “Everyone thought it was a private school,” he said.
In the 2007-2008 school year, Latino enrollment at Maureen Joy was 4 percent.
Quigley set out to find Latino parents to tell them about the school, visiting English-as-a-second-language classes, a Latino community center, churches, and a flea market with a large Hispanic customer base.
“I made personal relationships with the parents of families,” Quigley said.
As a result, Maureen Joy stands out among the state’s charters as a school that is majority Latino. Statewide, Latino enrollment in charters is below that of traditional public schools. In 2016-17, Latino enrollment in charter schools was 9.2 percent, and in traditional public schools it was 17.3 percent.
Maureen Joy students stay at school longer each day than their traditional public school counterparts. The added time allows the school to carve out 45 minutes each day to give students extra help in reading or math.
Vonette O. Rogers ended up enrolling her children in Maureen Joy when she was looking for middle schools for her daughter, Victoria, who was attending a traditional public school.
“I knew the path for her was not traditional public school for middle school,” Rogers said. She was looking for “something a little bit different.”
Both Victoria and her younger brother, Dean, ended up gaining admission through the school’s lottery.
Rogers said the school satisfied her daughter’s artistic interests and her son’s fascination with technology. Her daughter developed a portfolio she used to later enroll in Durham School of the Arts, the school district’s popular magnet school. And Rogers’ son has learned to code.
“They’re offering a small school feel but with the resources you would have available at the larger school,” she said.
Maureen Joy received C grades on its state report cards in the last two years. Bailey, the principal, was disappointed, but said the school expects to earn a B next year.
Though Bailey expects more, Maureen Joy is one of the better-performing charters in Durham focused on at-risk students.
With the exception of Global Scholars Academy, which also earned a C, Durham charters with higher concentrations of low-income students earned a collection of Ds and Fs under the state’s grading system, about the same as the traditional public schools nearby.