Do char­ter schools widen the di­vide?

In seg­re­gated La. parishes, choice was seen as a so­lu­tion. But it might be mak­ing the prob­lem worse.

The Washington Post Sunday - - NEWS - BY MANDY MCLAREN na­tional@wash­post.com

At the new pub­lic char­ter school in this Mis­sis­sippi River town, nearly all the stu­dents are African Amer­i­can. Par­ents seem un­con­cerned about that. They just hope their chil­dren will get a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion.

“I wanted my girls to soar higher,” said Al­freda Cooper, who is black and has two daugh­ters at Greater Grace Char­ter Acad­emy.

Three hours up the road, stu­dents at Delta Char­ter School in Con­cor­dia Parish are over­whelm­ingly white, even though the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity is far more mixed.

As the char­ter school move­ment ac­cel­er­ates across the coun­try, a crit­i­cal ques­tion re­mains unan­swered: whether the cre­ation of char­ters is ac­cel­er­at­ing school seg­re­ga­tion. Fed­eral judges who over­see de­seg­re­ga­tion plans in Louisiana are wrestling with that is­sue at a time when Pres­i­dent Trump wants to spend bil­lions of dol­lars on char­ter schools, vouch­ers and other “school choice” ini­tia­tives.

In Fe­bru­ary, a judge found that Delta Char­ter had vi­o­lated the terms of the parish’s court-or­dered de­seg­re­ga­tion plan, and asked the char­ter and lo­cal school board to sub­mit pro­pos­als for how to move for­ward. The board in Con­cor­dia not only is seek­ing re­im­burse­ment of mil­lions of dol­lars, but also wants the judge to re­quire the char­ter school to can­cel its en­roll­ment and start over with the aim of cre­at­ing a more di­verse stu­dent body. That would in­clude of­fer­ing trans­porta­tion to the school — some­thing that could make it pos­si­ble for more black stu­dents to at­tend.

The na­tion’s schools have be­come more seg­re­gated by race and class over the past two decades, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral data, and some re­search in­di­cates that char­ter schools are more likely to be seg­re­gated than tra­di­tional pub­lic schools. Some char­ter ad­vo­cates say they are more in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing good schools for marginal­ized chil­dren as quickly as pos­si­ble — no mat­ter the con­se­quences for the racial makeup of en­roll­ment.

“I ain’t got time for peo­ple talk­ing about in­te­gra­tion when we’re try­ing to meet the needs of these chil­dren,” said Howard L. Fuller, an ed­u­ca­tion pro­fes­sor at Mar­quette Univer­sity who sup­ports char­ter schools, pri­vate-school vouch­ers and other ef­forts to give par­ents more say in ed­u­ca­tion.

More than 60 years af­ter “sep­a­rate” was de­clared un­equal in the land­mark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, re­search shows that schools serv­ing mostly poor chil­dren of color have fewer re­sources, more in­ex­pe­ri­enced teach­ers and lim­ited ac­cess to rig­or­ous course­work.

“No one is say­ing that char­ter schools are bad,” said Deuel Ross, an at­tor­ney for the NAACP Le­gal De­fense Fund in­volved in one of the Louisiana cases. “But re­search and hun­dreds of years of his­tory have shown that seg­re­gated schools are not what’s best for black chil­dren.”

Choice vs. in­te­gra­tion

The first char­ter schools — tax­payer-funded and pri­vately run — were founded a quar­ter-cen­tury ago as an ex­per­i­ment to give teach­ers more free­dom to in­no­vate. To­day, ad­vo­cates say the in­sti­tu­tions pro­vide dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents with a high-qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion, while crit­ics say they siphon money out of tra­di­tional pub­lic schools, at least par­tially pri­va­tiz­ing an es­sen­tial gov­ern­ment func­tion.

Char­ters ac­count for a small share of pub­lic school en­roll­ment — about 5 per­cent in 2014, fed­eral data shows. Trump’s in­ter­est in ex­pand­ing char­ters could ac­cel­er­ate their growth, forc­ing state and lo­cal lead­ers to make dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions about how and whether to bal­ance the ideals of par­ent choice and in­te­grated schools.

Con­cor­dia Parish, which stretches for 70 miles along the Mis­sis­sippi bor­der, has been try­ing to de­seg­re­gate its schools for decades, un­der the eye of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. In 2013, a fed­eral judge al­lowed Delta Char­ter School to open there on the con­di­tion that its stu­dent body re­flect the de­mo­graph­ics of the school district.

At the time, the district was split al­most evenly be­tween black and white stu­dents. But the char­ter, in the pre­dom­i­nantly African Amer­i­can town of Fer­ri­day, has never en­rolled a pro­por­tion­ate share of black stu­dents. Sev­en­teen per­cent of Delta Char­ter’s stu­dents were black at the start of the 2016-2017 school year, court records show.

The lo­cal school board also con­tends in court doc­u­ments that the char­ter school has si­phoned $11.6 mil­lion from district schools in the past four years, mak­ing it harder for the parish to carry out its de­seg­re­ga­tion plan, which in­cludes a dis­trictwide mag­net pro­gram.

The char­ter school opened in a build­ing that once housed a “seg­re­ga­tion acad­emy” — one of the all-white pri­vate schools that emerged decades ago in the South to re­sist court-or­dered in­te­gra­tion. That sym­bol­ism is not lost on the com­mu­nity. Adding to the ten­sion, a vet­eran teacher in the school district said many of the area’s high-per­form­ing stu­dents and in­volved par­ents have de­camped for the char­ter.

“It’s kind of looked down upon if you go to a pub­lic school,” said teacher D’Shay Oaks, re­fer­ring to the tra­di­tional pub­lic schools.

The stu­dents left be­hind have lost aca­demic role mod­els, she said. And the school has lost fundrais­ing and vol­un­teer power, de­lay­ing an ef­fort to up­date its com­puter lab and make other needed im­prove­ments.

A lawyer for Delta Char­ter de­clined to com­ment, cit­ing the pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion. But Sheena Mize, whose son and daugh­ter at­tend the char­ter, says the school is suc­ceed­ing aca­dem­i­cally and should not be pe­nal­ized for the com­mu­nity’s long-stand­ing racial di­vide.

“It is the way it is in this area,” said Mize, who is white. “The com­mu­nity sep­a­rated them­selves on their own. I don’t think it’s any­one’s fault the way it ended up.”

Caro­line Roemer, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Louisiana As­so­ci­a­tion of Pub­lic Char­ter Schools, de­fended the school. Delta Char­ter should not be asked to bear the bur­den of solv­ing “so­ci­ety’s com­plex racial strug­gles and his­tory,” she said. The school — which is rated a B on the state’s A-to-F scale — “has done more to cre­ate a high-qual­ity pub­lic school that is open to all res­i­dents than the district has achieved in the past 60 years,” she said.

Char­ter schools do not use neigh­bor­hood bound­aries to de­ter­mine en­roll­ment. The­o­ret­i­cally, that gives them the po­ten­tial to cre­ate more stu­dent di­ver­sity than tra­di­tional schools. But for most char­ters, de­seg­re­ga­tion has not been the pri­mary goal.

Of the states that al­low char­ter schools, about a third re­quire af­fir­ma­tive steps to­ward di­ver­sity. Even then, most have no mech­a­nisms for en­forc­ing such pro­vi­sions, ac­cord­ing to Erica Franken­berg, a Penn­syl­va­nia State Univer­sity pro­fes­sor and expert on school seg­re­ga­tion.

And there is mount­ing ev­i­dence that char­ters con­trib­ute to the broader re­seg­re­ga­tion of the na­tion’s class­rooms. Re­searchers with the Civil Rights Project at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Los An­ge­les found in 2010 that black stu­dents in char­ter schools are far more likely than their coun­ter­parts in tra­di­tional pub­lic schools to be ed­u­cated in an in­tensely seg­re­gated set­ting.

Other stud­ies in Cal­i­for­nia, North Carolina, Min­nesota and the District have reached sim­i­lar con­clu­sions. But some ex­perts cau­tion that many fac­tors, in­clud­ing hous­ing pat­terns and ge­og­ra­phy, can in­flu­ence the racial dis­tri­bu­tion of stu­dents at any given school.

Na­tion­ally, ev­i­dence on char­ter school per­for­mance is mixed. Some are mired in fi­nan­cial dif­fi­culty and aca­demic medi­ocrity. But there are clear ex­am­ples of char­ter schools that pro­vide poor and mi­nor­ity chil­dren with stronger ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties.

The KIPP char­ter net­work says its stu­dents grad­u­ate from high school at a rate 20 per­cent­age points higher than their low-in­come peers across the coun­try do. At the all-male Ur­ban Prep Char­ter Acad­emy in Chicago, 100 per­cent of grad­u­ates have been ac­cepted to col­lege, in­clud­ing to Ivy League uni­ver­si­ties, over the past eight years.

An­other op­tion

Peo­ple in Vacherie hope Greater Grace Char­ter Acad­emy will be one of these beat-the-odds schools.

Housed in a cin­der block build­ing leased from a lo­cal church, Greater Grace is lo­cated in a town si­t­u­ated amid sugar cane fields on the west bank of the Mis­sis­sippi. Each morn­ing, stu­dents clad in ma­roon uni­forms stream in­side as flatbed trucks whiz by on the high­way out front.

Dur­ing the day, the chil­dren learn in trail­ers in the back, and at dis­missal, they board the char­ter school’s yel­low bus, bound for all cor­ners of 260-square-mile St. James Parish, where the school is lo­cated.

But Greater Grace does not re­flect the de­mo­graph­ics of a parish school sys­tem that also has been try­ing to di­ver­sify its class­rooms for decades un­der a court-or­dered de­seg­re­ga­tion plan. Of the 3,800 stu­dents in St. James Parish, roughly two-thirds are black, and a third are white. At Greater Grace, more than 90 per­cent of stu­dents are black, giv­ing rise to con­cerns that the new school has cre­ated yet an­other racially iso­lated set­ting.

When a fed­eral judge al­lowed Greater Grace to open, he em­pha­sized the value of parental choice. But black par­ents and the NAACP have ap­pealed, ar­gu­ing that Greater Grace should be closed un­til it can re­open with a more in­te­grated ap­proach. Oral ar­gu­ments are sched­uled for June at a fed­eral ap­peals court in New Or­leans.

Rhoda John­son, a black plain­tiff in the case, said she is trou­bled by the seg­re­gated na­ture of the new char­ter. As a child, she at­tended an all-black district school not far from where Greater Grace now stands.

“We used hand-me-down books from the white school,” re­called John­son, 56, whose son and grand­sons at­tend schools in the St. James pub­lic district.

Lo­cals say that in this parish, dot­ted with an­te­bel­lum plan­ta­tions once pow­ered by slave la­bor and now de­pen­dent on tourist dol­lars, one side al­ways has been pre­dom­i­nantly black and the other pre­dom­i­nantly white. Even af­ter decades of de­seg­re­ga­tion ef­forts, tra­di­tional pub­lic schools within the parish also re­main in­tensely seg­re­gated, ac­cord­ing to court records.

Claudette Au­bert, the char­ter school’s founder, said it was time to give fam­i­lies in her ru­ral com­mu­nity an­other op­tion.

She opened Greater Grace last fall af­ter learn­ing that many stu­dents were fall­ing years be­hind in read­ing and math at tra­di­tional pub­lic schools. The char­ter school of­fers small class sizes and com­puter-based in­struc­tion to help meet stu­dents at their level, Au­bert said.

A pas­tor in St. James Parish and former spe­cial-ed­u­ca­tion teacher, Au­bert says she spent years ed­u­cat­ing res­i­dents about the pos­si­bil­i­ties a char­ter school could bring to their com­mu­nity.

It is still too early to tell whether Greater Grace will make good on its prom­ise of a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion. But when the school opened its doors last year, 85 stu­dents en­rolled.

“They showed up,” Au­bert said. “They wanted an­other choice.” Emma Brown con­trib­uted to this re­port, which was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with the In­ves­tiga­tive Re­port­ing Work­shop at Amer­i­can Univer­sity, where McLaren is a stu­dent.

MAX BECHERER/PO­LARIS IMAGES FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Speech pathol­o­gist Tori Hub­bard works in Vacherie, La., with stu­dents at Greater Grace Char­ter Acad­emy. Nine-tenths of stu­dents there are black. In the school’s parish, that fig­ure is just two-thirds.

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