national newsletter

Do charter schools make segregation worse?

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! Matt Barnum, Kalyn Belsha, Sarah Darville, and Camille Respess here, working to help you make sense of efforts to improve education across the country. 

The big story

Matt here: A few months ago, I was at an education research conference where the preliminary results of a provocative study were presented. The research is among the first national, rigorous attempts to try answer an increasingly pressing question: Are charter schools exacerbating racial segregation?

Since then, I’ve been waiting for the study to come out. Now it’s public, with findings that will complicate a live-wire debate.

The researchers find that the expansion of charters has in fact made segregation worse within school districts. But the impact is fairly small: if charters were to vanish tomorrow, segregation in school districts across the country would fall by 5 to 7%.

“Ninety-five percent of the segregation is still there,” said Brian Kisida, one of the researchers.

Looking across entire metropolitan areas, which usually include many school districts, charter schools didn’t clearly increase or decrease racial segregation.

The findings are important in part because American schools remain sharply segregated by race even as research has consistently linked integration to better academic outcomes for black and Hispanic students. The question has also increasingly played a role in political debates about charters, with Bernie Sanders, for instance, citing concerns about charter schools and segregation in his recent education plan.

Read our full story here.

Also from the national desk

How’s the Gates Foundation’s new education strategy going? Recall that a centerpiece of the revamped approach involves creating networks of schools seeking “continuous improvement.” At a conference recently convened by the foundation, participants described the program as more ground-up than past approaches backed by Gates. At least 12 more grants are also on the way. But the jury is still out how the approach will affect student outcomes.

“Maybe in our goal to get flexible schools where working conditions makes sense and we can respond flexibly to the needs of teachers, it isn’t the right strategy,” said Bob Hughes, the foundation’s K-12 education director. “We have to take that risk, and we have to acknowledge that up front: that it may not work in every circumstance and every problem.”

Local stories to watch

  • Chicago’s new mayor is under pressure to change the way the city funds schools. Chicago already uses a “weighted” funding system, with more money going to schools serving students with disabilities and English learners, for example. Advocates are pushing for new categories, like homeless students, refugees, and students who have been involved in the criminal justice system.
  • The Denver school board race is heating up. Three seats are up for grabs this November and will be closely watched by those who back the district’s “portfolio model”-style policies. The Colorado chapter of Students for Education Reform has backed candidates supportive of the district’s approach, while the city’s teachers union is supporting those who want to “flip the board.”
  • A proposal to use a Memphis school to house unaccompanied migrant children was shelved. It was not entirely clear why, but the idea was withdrawn after Chalkbeat inquiries. Facilities for children and their families crossing the southern U.S. border have been scrutinized in recent months for their inadequate care and overcrowding. The school district’s facilities director said extensive building renovations would have been necessary.
  • Why New York City’s school integration push has brought hope and worries to one Brooklyn school. P.S. 676 is a segregated school within a diverse area, and some hope that a local effort could help integrate the school. But supporters also have concerns — including that an influx of white, wealthier students could displace the black and Hispanic families who have been fighting for a turnaround.
  • An Indiana virtual school accused of getting money for “ghost students” could close sooner than expected. That’s the latest update in the saga of two low-performing online charter schools in Indiana, echoing issues seen at virtual schools across the country. The move could create headaches for students and families, since one of the schools in question was supposed to remain open this coming school year.

Research roundup

  • A turnaround program gone wrong in North Carolina offers a cautionary tale. The initiative dispatched coaches from the state education department to help struggling schools improve. But according to a new study, this approach hurt rather than helped schools — test scores fell modestly and teacher turnover spiked as a result. The results are important in light of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives states significant leeway in designing turnaround programs. Many have coaching initiatives similar to North Carolina’s. Read more.
  • Do students benefit from attending an elite boarding high school? A new study takes a look at an unusual school — a competitive public high school where students live on campus in North Carolina. The paper finds that students of color and those who otherwise would have attended lower quality high schools see higher SAT scores and attend better colleges as a result. (There was no clear effect on college completion within four years, though.) The results of this study stand in contrast to past research showing there are limited benefits from attending an academically selective high school in places like Boston, Chicago, and New York City.

DeVos watch

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was in South Carolina last week continuing to promote her proposed school choice tax credit program. She was joined by the state’s governor and education secretary. DeVos described the idea as “inevitable,” but it faces an uphill climb in Congress. DeVos’ official schedule says she met with members of Congress yesterday and today.

DeVos and her family have likely benefited financially from the Trump tax cuts, according to a CNBC analysis.

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow said “we should send [DeVos] back” to the state, even as she said, “I really wish she was not from Michigan.”

The Trump administration’s effort to clamp down on food stamp eligibility could create added hassles for the hundreds of thousands of students who automatically qualify for free school lunches because their families receive those benefits.

2020 vision

Beto O’Rourke released an education policy plan this morning, which expanded on ideas he raised at a teachers union forum earlier this month. His signature proposal is a $500 billion fund to close spending gaps for districts that serve low-income students of color. O’Rourke’s proposal doesn’t mention charters. At an NAACP presidential forum today, O’Rourke said his administration would “wipe clean” student loan debt for public school teachers.

Julián Castro’s policing plan says his administration would ensure schools receiving federal funding couldn’t use police officers as “discipline agents.” “Too often times they are enforcing it in a biased way, especially against young black men,” Castro said at the NAACP forum today. The plan also says schools would be required to provide employees with unconscious bias training.

Pete Buttigieg’s campaign is hiring an “education policy lead” who will “oversee development of bold, creative, and detailed policy plans.”

For a full rundown on where the Democratic candidates stand on education issues, check out our ever-updating cheat sheet.

What we’re reading

  • The U.S. civil rights commission issued a report on discipline disparities, stirring debate about why they exist. Washington Post
  • The state takeover of Providence public schools won approval by the Rhode Island Board of Education. Providence Journal
  • The black superintendent of a school district outside Kansas City proposed racial equity training for staffers last year. He resigned this week after backlash. Kansas City Star

Photo by Stephanie Steyer