Charter school advocates have recently expressed frustration in the final charter language in the Democratic party platform as well as a new NAACP resolution concerning charter schools and a platform produced from Black Lives Matters activists that raise concerns about charters “destabilizing” and “resegregating” traditional public schools. I can provide a well-documented example the legitimacy of these concerns in the district I have worked in for 16 years, Durham Public Schools in Durham, NC.
Though Faulkner’s words are misquoted, his sentiment is very true: in the South, the past isn’t history, in fact, it isn’t even the past yet. Like all Southern cities, Durham has its own unique and complex history of segregation and desegregation If you really want to understand the history of Durham, and by extension, of many of the challenges of race relations throughout the South, please watch this excellent documentary.
Durham’s two public school districts were fully desegregated by court order in 1970. White flight from the city to county schools was the result. The two districts coexisted for decades, the city district overwhelming black (including school board, administrators, and teachers as well as students) and the county district overwhelmingly white—though each individual district was technically “integrated.” Despite regular joint school board meetings and reoccurring productive conversations about merger starting in the 1970s, the two districts did not formally merge until 1992.
Through a variety of measures — magnet programs, equitable funding, new school construction and redistricting, urban planning and housing programs — the community successfully diversified most of its schools at that time. However, care was taken to honor and preserve the community’s beloved historically black high school, Hillside. Hillside is the oldest and one of only five historically black high schools that still survive in North Carolina (from 300 that existed prior to desegregation).
Throughout the early and mid-2000’s, DPS worked to maintain the delicate balance necessary in a diverse Southern school system. Using testing data and diverse community input, the district developed an ambitious 10-year plan starting in 1997 to attack various achievement gaps. Throughout the early and mid-2000’s, DPS worked to maintained the complex and delicate balance necessary in a diverse Southern school system that is simultaneously urban, suburban, and rural.
The rapid and unmanaged growth of charter schools in the county has now destroyed that delicate balance. The impact increased after 2011 when the state cap on charters was lifted and a number of steps were taken by state lawmakers to loosen oversight of charters. In NC, the state authorizes charters with no input from the local districts. There are no guidelines to ensure that charter enrollment mirrors the diversity of the surrounding community. Charter schools are also not required to provide transportation or meals. Even the National Association of Charter School Authorizers has expressed concern about charter policy in the state.
As a result of these policies, charter schools in the state are more segregated than traditional public schools. Researchers at Duke University have pointed out that 20% of all charter schools in the state are 90% or more white. Durham, a district with less than 40,000 school-aged children, now has 13 charter schools with number 14 scheduled to open this fall and number 15 already approved for the future.
The net result of the growth in charters is that they have concentrated poorer children of color in the district schools. According to the 2010 census, 40% of Durham County’s population is white. As of last school year, only 18% of Durham Public School students were white. Meanwhile, four Durham charter schools are 54%-67% white. Essentially, since the growth of charter schools beginning in the 2007-08 school year, approximately 1200 white students have disappeared from Durham Public Schools.
Both research and anecdotal evidence (here and here) demonstrate that white parents prefer schools where their child will be in the majority, often as a more important factor than school quality. Research by Helen Ladd at Duke University on white parents in NC found that a 20% black population was the threshold that white parents preferred.
Three of the four majority white charter schools are not part of a charter management chain. They are grassroots charters started by the local community. Some associated with some of those charters have expressed a seemingly honest desire for a more diverse student body but are unable or unwilling to address the underlying reasons why many families of color do not consider the school a viable option. It is notable the other nine charter schools in the county are a majority students of color.
Of course, the reasons behind all parents’ school choices are complex. I know this first hand as the magnet coordinator at my school where I work directly with parents involved in the school choice process. They look for convenience; they look for “fit;” they are often far more concerned about social aspects of the school than the quality of instruction.
At the same time, I routinely hear white parents make coded statements that expose unconscious racism and both black and white parents express unconscious classism. Parents lament that if only DPS schools were “safer” they would send them there instead. One can also hear concern over “fair treatment” from a black principal or their children being around “disruptive” students who “don’t take their academics seriously.”
Many white and middle class parents are looking for rich, progressive learning environments for their children, something they often wrongly assume can’t be found in traditional public schools serving urban youth. They assume those schools provide only rigid and narrow approaches to education with an excessive focus on testing. DPS already has a lot of choice built in the system. It has a liberal transfer policy and 40% of the schools are part of an award winning magnet program. Testing data shows that the four majority white charter schools do no better than most, and worse than a few, DPS schools. None of those four charter schools provides a specialized curriculum that is not already available within the district schools.
While each student who leaves the district for a charter school takes with them their average per-pupil spending, the district has been left with students who are more expensive to educate. In a district with a 30% child poverty rate, Durham Public Schools now has a 65% free and reduced lunch rate as well as higher concentrations of students with disabilities and English language learners. Students who return to the district after the 20th day of school do not bring any funds back with them.
In a vicious, self-fulfilling cycle, the exodus of white and middle class families may cause the district schools to look more like those very schools those families want to avoid. Concentrated poverty and disadvantaged students have impacted school test data and the district faces greater testing pressures.
The future holds even more uncertainty. The number of charter schools has destabilized the whole school system. Charters can and do close mid-year leaving the local district to suddenly accommodate those children, sometimes without the benefit of transcripts. A lot of time and money spent on careful and responsible planning for future growth and facility usage in the district can be thrown out the window. The district now faces uncertainty about student movement to and from charters and the number of charters may be approved in the future.
While area charters still claim long wait-lists, insiders express concerns of charter market over saturation with some new charters failing to meet enrollment goals and charters investing more time and money into recruitment efforts. Area charter teachers also quietly express concern about practices of grade inflation and lack of rigor as charter schools try to keep students and families satisfied.
Any readers who are still looking for another explanation must have more faith in white acknowledgement of privilege and racism than I do. What is happening in Durham raises a lot of questions and should give pause. The intersection of race and school choice is complex. Given the known benefits of school integration for all students, it is time to consider policy approaches that ensure that school choice leads to more integration rather than contributing to more racial and economic isolation in our public schools.
As white students quickly become a minority in America’s public schools, we now have a taste of what the white privilege fueled response may look like.
Durham shows us that decades of violent and intense desegregation battles can be quickly undone.