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Report Explores How to Promote Equity, Racial Diversity in Charters

Both supporters and critics of charter schools "couch their arguments in the language of opportunity," a new report explains. Backers of charters contend that they provide new options to parents and students stuck with failing schools, and schools that otherwise don't meet their needs. Detractors see charters as worsening the stratification of students by race and social class and weakening funding and support for traditional publics.

One of the premises of a new report from the National Education Policy Center is that charter schools need to promote equal educational opportunity, including racial diversity and academic success across student populations. It finds that there are reasons be worried that charters exacerbate racial segregation and other divisions among educational groups such as special education students and English-language learners. Seventy percent of black charter school students, for instance, attend schools that are "intensely segregated"—having student populations that are at least 90 percent minority—nearly twice as high a number as the share of black students in traditional public schools who go to intensely segregated institutions, the authors say.

But authors Julie Mead and Preston Green also argue that state officials and charter school authorizers can promote equity and lessen those divisions—and do so in a legally defensible way.

Charter authorizers can adopt strategies like requiring that applicants show a commitment that they will "broaden, not replicate" opportunities for struggling populations, the authors say. Those steps could include showing how they will aggressively market the school to diverse populations of parents in the community.

Authorizers can also require charter applicants to address specific challenges of concern to the community—such as high dropout rates, achievement gaps, and defining their policies for expelling or suspending students.

They can also put out requests for proposals for charters to take on specific educational challenges facing a community, as shown by data.

"Charter school authorizers can approach their task in either a passive or an active posture," the authors write. "That is, they can wait to see what charter schools are proposed or they can actively seek ideas to tackle persistent identified problems."

The NEPC is a research center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, that seeks to produce and disseminate high quality research that informs policy. Center officials have conducted several analyses of charters and school choice, and of private and for-profit providers of education.

At the state level, legislatures can take broader steps to require that charters comply with federal laws and desegregation decrees, the report argues. Lawmakers can also increase requirements on charters to explicitly say how the school will be advertised, and how students from a broad variety of backgrounds will be encouraged to apply for admission.

Meanwhile, federal lawmakers, during reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, can set expectations that states show how their charter policies serve the "advancement of equity," the report contends.

Those are just some of the the authors' recommendations. Are their conclusions—and their overall depiction of the opportunities provided and populations served by charters—on point?

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