It’s always good to see issues of school segregation and integration back on the table as part of the education reform discussion; most recently, the discussion of this important reform goal was triggered in New York by Eva Moskowitz’s latest demand of the state that her chain of schools should be exempted from following the state charter law which requires that all charters serve high-needs students in proportions comparable to those of local schools. However, Moskowitz’s claim that her purpose in seeking this right to play by different rules than other charters is simply to expand school integration is deeply disingenuous. Paradoxically, she seemingly simultaneously wants to argue that she should be allowed to expand because her schools are successfully serving the same demographics of students as New York City’s district schools and to argue that her schools are better because, unlike many of the local district schools, they’re economically integrated. Conveniently, her new dedication to integration seems to have emerged just after the new law requiring greater demographic parity was passed.
Similarly, Moskowitz’s claims to the state that requirements that her chain’s schools recruit and retain high needs students provide “perverse incentives” to over-identify those students misses a key point. The three year limit she complains about is designed to counteract another “perverse incentive” built into the law — the temptation to target charter recruitment so that the lowest-need students from within the three target areas are disproportionately enrolled in lieu of students with greater needs, increasing the chances that charters will both be able to hit their enrollment targets and achieve higher test scores than schools which enroll the higher needs students within these groups (who are less likely to test out of the category). While over-identification of these students is an important issue, the solution is not to remove the part of the proposed policy which ensures that charters will be held accountable for serving students with the greatest needs. In Moskowitz’s case, her recent decision to drop preferences for “at risk students” from her lottery process indicates that these protections are especially important in ensuring accountability among the schools in her network.
In addition, reports that both Moskowitz’s Network and her husband’s proposed new chain of charters are devoting extensive time and money towards recruitment efforts aimed at relatively advantaged parents in the neighborhoods their new schools will serve add another level of complication to this issue. Of particular concern are reports from integrated district schools in Brooklyn that Success Network recruiters are attempting to persuade parents currently enrolled at those schools to transfer their students into the chain’s proposed schools in that area.
As a new report from Richard Kahlenberg at the Century Foundation points out, charters which successfully maintain socioeconomically integrated student bodies in the long run do so by specifically targeting their recruitment towards the highest-needs students, not those whose families are most likely to already have the time, information, and resources to participate in the school choice process:
Since its founding, E. L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., has conducted extensive recruitment drives at a variety of neighborhood locations. “When we first got started, we recruited from in front of grocery stores, to coffee shops, to preschools,” said Jennifer Niles, the school’s founder and head of school. “If there was a community organization that I could find, I would go to it.” Now that E. L. Haynes is a top-ranked charter school in the city and receives many applications from families who hear about the school through its reputation, E. L. Haynes focuses all of its recruitment efforts on low-income and non-English-speaking families, who may have less access to information about local schools.
Again, increased socioeconomic and racial integration in both charter and district schools is a worthwhile and valuable mission for education reformers, for all of the many reasons Kahlenberg and his co-author detail in their report. Improving levels of integration in all schools in New York City and New York State is an important policy goal, and reforms which result in a lessening of the intense segregation which currently characterize enrollments in our schools, community school districts, cities and suburbs are urgently needed.
However, a focus on this goal should not be used as a reason to support charter enrollment policies which actually intensify segregation in the neighborhoods in which these schools are sited, or to ignore other ways in which some school reformers poorly serve our city’s neediest students — whether through selective recruitment and retention in charters or through advocating a “No Excuses” model of urban education reform which fails to acknowledge the broader social, economic, and political forces in both cities and suburbs which create the terrible levels of segregation and inequality of opportunity which mark urban schools today.
Those who seek to argue that increasing the number of charter schools in our country is the key element of addressing the “civil rights issue of our era” should take a moment to reflect on how far we are from achieving the goals of the actual civil rights era — the ending of racial disparities in housing, employment, health care, voting rights, and equal funding for education — which remain both hugely important to our students’ experiences and labeled as “excuses” by corporate-model reformers such as Moskowitz.