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Segregation Is a Problem: Charters Can Be Part of the Solution

Richard Buery Jr. is KIPP's chief of policy and public affairs. Before joining KIPP, Richard served as deputy mayor for New York City mayor (and presidential aspirant) Bill de Blasio, and he also founded the Children's Aid College Prep Charter School in the South Bronx. Richard will be writing about why charters can help solve segregation, why charter schools are most essential to minority families, and why career and technical education matters.

Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education, America's schools are still largely divided by race. Then as now, separate is unequal—and our schools are mostly separate. Integrating our schools can help build a more just world. Beyond the clear moral and legal imperatives, integrated schools can lower racial academic-achievement gaps, as well as promote creativity, confidence, leadership, and critical thinking, and they can drive more equitable education spending. Some commentators have said charters are part of the problem. It is true that nationwide, public charter schools have a greater proportion of students of color than district schools, although not necessarily more than other schools in predominantly black and/or Latinx neighborhoods. And a recent study by the Urban Institute shows that charters have at most a modest segregative impact. But let's be clear: Charters did not cause the problem of school segregation. We can, however, be part of the solution.

First, it is just wrong to criticize charters for having predominantly black or Latinx student bodies. These problems are as old as the republic itself, grounded in our nation's long, persistent history of racial subjugation. Intentionally providing black and Latinx students with excellent schools is very different from state-sanctioned segregation designed to oppress those very students. To say otherwise is to equate affirmative action to Jim Crow. Context matters. Many charters, KIPP included, were created by educators frustrated that so many low-income students and students of color are trapped in struggling schools. As a result, we often intentionally locate our schools in those neighborhoods that have the greatest need. It is not surprising, then, that so many charters would open in largely black and Latinx communities and educate large numbers of black and Latinx students. 

Second, high-quality charter schools can be a part of the solution. In residentially segregated cities that assign students based on their addresses, charters allow families to attend school outside of their neighborhood and learn with students from different backgrounds. Our schools are public schools, and while many prioritize students who live nearby (and this is often legally required), enrollment is open to everyone. And some of the best urban charters outperform suburban public schools. That few white students enroll is not the fault of charters. Denying black and Latinx children access to quality neighborhood schools because not enough white families are willing to join them there would be a perversion of Brown v. Board. A court decision designed to provide black students educational opportunity should not be used to deny them that opportunity.

The flexibility inherent in charter schools offers a potential path forward. KIPP is preparing to launch an "intentionally integrated" middle school, KIPP Beyond. Schools such as KIPP Beyond, which received one of the final charters available in New York City, can help bridge racial gaps in places like New York City's community school district 3, which includes both part of Harlem—a mostly black neighborhood—and the Upper West Side—which is mostly white.

District 3 has the city's highest percentage of public middle schools that use test scores and other screens to determine school admissions, so it is no surprise that its middle schools are among the most segregated in the city. KIPP Beyond will not use admissions screens and will be open to students across the district. KIPP Beyond is designed to be racially and socio-economically diverse, with a teaching staff that mirrors that diversity, and a school approach that embraces inclusivity, joy, and rigor. But it has faced strong opposition from the local community education board, and the city has not given it classroom space, simply because it is a charter. This, even though KIPP Beyond has demonstrated strong support from white, black, and Latinx families who are hungry for their children to learn together. In the city with the most segregated school system in America, we should be embracing schools like KIPP Beyond. You cannot simultaneously criticize charters for segregation and stymie charter-led efforts to overcome it.

We cannot expect black and Latinx families to languish in failing schools while we work to solve the centuries-old problem of separate and unequal schools. Our students have a right to excellent schools now—schools that are rigorous, warm, and supportive; schools with principals and leaders of color; and schools that support high aspirations. The evidence is clear: Charters are among the public schools delivering for black and Latinx students. Indeed, recent research from New Jersey shows that a strong charter sector can help improve all schools.

Our public schools, like our nation, continue to wrestle with racism. It will be a great day when our schools are equitably resourced and uniformly excellent. KIPP will continue to work toward that goal. And until then, we will stay focused on providing our students with a quality education that expands their opportunities today.

Richard Buery Jr. 

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