Charter Schools and the Myth of Desegregation

Education Policy Brief #83 | By: Steve Piazza | July 19, 2023
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Equal access to public schools in America has long been considered a tenet to maintaining its democracy. The push to desegregate them was viewed as an extension of this principle as its intention was to provide increased equitable academic opportunities and resources for students of all ethnic and economic backgrounds.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka is the U.S. Supreme Court precedent for the desegregation of American public schools. Yet, even after the 1954 decision, the road to desegregation has been a slow one. In some instances, it took schools over a decade to begin complying with federal law. In the eyes of many, despite early improvement in graduation rates in African American and Hispanic students, the actuality of integration has been digressing.

School choice, and more specifically charter schools, have been thought of by some as a way to help desegregate schools.  Charter schools are allowed greater local control and are not subject to the same rules and regulations as public schools. Charter schools and districts receive funding from the state and the local school system, though recent federal funding opportunities exist to assist with start-up costs.     

Ordinarily, there are no demographic enrollment requirements for charter schools since by nature they are open to all students. In other words, they are not permitted to select their students to fulfill diversity goals like magnet schools can. This means that a charter school may find itself even more segregated.




When it comes to improving schools, there is an enormous difference between educational innovation and school choice strategies like charter schools. 

Education innovations range anywhere from year-round schools to technology-based lessons to experiential learning. Rather than mere rote memorization, the emphasis is on critical thinking, collaboration, and cultural awareness, attributes that colleges look for in those applying for admission. But a charter school is not so much  an innovative teaching methodology as it is a process and framework that  allows innovations to take place, which  is part of their widespread appeal

Since the early 1990s, charter schools have become one of the more popular choice approaches, and by 2019 3.4 million students were reported as being served by over 7500 schools with charter designation.

Despite their popularity, results on academic progress are mixed. In studies performed by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, little or no differences in performance exist between traditional and charter schools. 

However, according to a study done by Education Next, from 2005 and 2017 charter school students have demonstrated higher achievement by at least a half a year, and mostly by those who are African American or in lower economic groups particularly in urban areas. Researchers caution these trends do not point directly at an ethnic or poverty level, but do suggest that either the education quality has improved or that newly enrolled students are entering possessing more proficiency.

But when it comes to the progress of desegregating schools, charter schools have actually been shown to have little success achieving diversity, and even creating more segregated environments.

Statistics demonstrate that many charter schools enroll students that tend to be predominately one ethnic group. This means that many charter schools have become racially identifiable, and thus students are isolated from others of different backgrounds. 

On its own, a school being racially identifiable is not a bad thing, but if students are de facto segregated, they are missing out on interactions with other groups of children that may provide a more realistic view or representation of the larger society, not to mention the intrinsic advantages that come with cross cultural collaboration. 

Researchers of a 2019 Cornell study suggest that what is needed to reverse this trend of resegregation are “policies such as weighted lotteries, controlled choice and diversity-conscious admissions algorithms to ensure that charters operate more like racially inclusive magnet schools, and federal grant competitions should reward such efforts.” It might be a surprise to some that these strategies have not already been commonplace.

Many believe the real problem in education has been one of poverty and disproportionate funding, not race, as income segregation has increased significantly since the 1990’s. That But the sum of that argument does is not entirely made up of it parts hold up though, since at present, it appears to have so much to do with race as it can’t be a coincidence that white school districts still get more than $23 billion in funding than African American districts, and this includes charter schools.

Of course, all this raises the question: is integration for integration’s sake worth it?  

Some would argue no as there are instances of improved achievement at many predominantly African-American charter schools. But if those are the exception in segregated charter schools rather than the rule, and academic results show a correlation to funding, we still have more to learn about what it means to be equitable.

Engagement Resources


  • For more data on charter schools provided by The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) click here.
  • EdBuild advocates for equitable funding for school districts.  To learn more, visit their site at
    Brown’s Promise, a new program located at the Southern Education Foundation, advocates for school integration and the fair allocation of resources:
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