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How Can Charter Schools Best Help Poor Kids? Start Promoting Integration.

Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter, The Century Foundation Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter, The Century Foundation, posted on

Edith Ibarra hoped that education would be the key to creating new opportunities for her children. “I am from a poor background, and I want something better for my kids,” she said. But when Ibarra۪s daughter started kindergarten at their local neighborhood district school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, she was placed in an ESL class with poor instruction. The school had a weak academic record and served a population that was 95 percent low-income (eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. And so, with her son set to start kindergarten the following year, Ibarra decided to submit applications to a couple of charter schools, hoping that one of these schools would offer something better.

One of the great promises of the charter school movement is helping low-income families, like the Ibarras, access better schools for their kids. But what is the best way for charter schools to achieve this goal? Thus far, policymakers and philanthropists have placed a heavy bet on charter schools that specifically target disadvantaged studentsmaximizing their “bang for the buck” by serving as many low-income students as possible. This focus is well-meaning, but it fails to address the role that concentrated poverty plays in harming the educational outcomes of low-income students.

In our new book A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, we argue that the charter school sector needs a broader approach, one that promotes many more socioeconomically diverse charter schools that give low-income students the chance to learn in economically integrated environments.

Current public policies promote the creation of charter schools specifically targeting low-income students. Charter school laws in roughly a dozen states prioritize funding for charter schools serving at-risk or disadvantaged students, and federal charter school grants give a competitive preference to schools serving a high percentage of low-income students. According to a 2010 study, nearly half of all low-income charter school students attended schools where more than 75 percent of their classmates were also low-income. In comparison, roughly one-third of low-income district school students attend schools with such high poverty concentrations.

Improving opportunities and outcomes for low-income kids is paramount, but is focusing resources on charter schools that serve high concentrations of disadvantaged students the best way of achieving this goal?

Charter schools have made some progress so far in boosting achievement of low-income students. Stanford University researchers found that low-income students in charter schools on average outperform demographically similar peers in neighboring district schools. But since low-income students in both sectors are often in high-poverty settings, this research may only show that high-poverty charter schools do better than high-poverty district schools. Can integrated schools deliver even better results?

A long line of research points to “yes.” Regardless of their own socioeconomic backgrounds, students do better, on average, in mixed-income schools rather than in high-poverty learning environments. Middle-class schools are more likely to have the key ingredients of strong teachers, involved parents, and engaged peers. While it۪s possible to create high-poverty schools that have these same characteristics, it۪s rare. Economist Douglas Harris found that just 1.1 percent of majority-low-income schools are consistently high-performing.

Some high-poverty charter schools are beating these odds, but many others are not. Rather than placing all of our eggs in one basket, we need to support multiple charter school models.

In some areas of extreme residential segregation, charter schools will need to serve populations that are almost exclusively low-income.

But in many other places, the charter school model could be a powerful tool to promote diversity. Unlike district schools, most charter schools have the flexibility to enroll students from across multiple neighborhoods and to implement educational programs that meet the needs of learners from a wide variety of backgrounds.

A small but growing number of charter schools are doing just thisschools like DSST Public Schools, which operates the top three public schools in Denver, CO; Washington, D.C.۪s E. L. Haynes Public Charter School, winner of three EPIC Awards for student achievement gains; and the High Tech High network in San Diego, CA, which sends 98% of its graduates to college.

In addition to posting strong academic results, these diverse charter schools offer important civic and cognitive benefits that more homogeneous schools cannot. Diverse schools promote critical thinking skills, encourage tolerance, and reduce stereotyping.

Edith Ibarra experienced the benefits of a diverse school first hand when her son was accepted at one of the charter schools they had applied to, Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy. Unlike other charter schools in the area, BVP is an integrated regional charter school. “I see a big difference [between] this school [and] another charter school,” Ibarra said. Not only were academic results at BVP stronger than what she۪d witnessed at other schools, but “my kids could see kids from all the cultures.”

More families deserve the chance that the Ibarras had to send their children to a high-quality, integrated school. Charter schools can help make that happen.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and the author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools Unions, Race, and Democracy. Halley Potter is a fellow at The Century Foundation and a former charter school teacher. They are coauthors of A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. You can follow him on Twitter at @RickKahlenberg and her at @HalleyTCF.

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