Racial Integration for Colorado Charter Schools Explored

Published April 1, 2006

Leaders of Colorado’s school choice community walked away with plenty to think about, but no plan of action, from a January conference on the impact of school choice policies on student racial integration and segregation.

The day-long event, titled “Diverse Choices: Making School Choice Work for All Colorado Students,” was held January 23 at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Kevin Welner, an associate professor of education at the school who served as one of the event’s chief organizers, said the conference accomplished the goal he had going in: for Colorado choice advocates to pick the brains of those in other communities who’ve had success not only in getting choice programs implemented but also in ensuring they serve a diverse base of students.

“In Colorado, choice has tended to lead to segregation,” Welner said. “But not in other states. We wanted to hear from people in those states about their experiences.”

Designing Consciously

Among those who attended were education analysts from communities with successful choice programs, as well as lawyers and legal experts who laid out the legal implications of pursuing such choice options as race-conscious student-assignment policies. In a pair of rulings (Gratz v. Bollinger, 2002 and Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003), the U.S. Supreme Court found fixed numerical goals and quotas unconstitutional. Each applicant must receive individualized consideration, the Court held, and admission decisions cannot be based on race alone.

“What we were hearing primarily is that the rules matter,” Welner explained. “A given school choice plan, in and of itself, doesn’t tell you if you’re going to wind up with integration or segregation. It’s how it’s structured.”

Nina Lopez, public affairs director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, one of the local choice advocates who attended the conference, agreed.

“Providing equal access to school choice options requires that the design and implementation of choice be conscious about attracting and retaining students from diverse backgrounds,” she said. “Providing students and parents with the ability to choose a school can be rendered meaningless if there is no meaningful way for those schools to be accessed by a cross-section of students within a particular community.”

Integrating Deliberately

As for why diversity and integration are important for individual students and the student body as a whole, Lopez cited a May 2002 study of Denver’s public schools by the Piton Foundation, a local organization devoted to improving public education and strengthening low-income Denver neighborhoods, which cosponsored the January conference. The study found marked differences in student achievement corresponding positively to the degree of diversity of students in particular schools.

Lopez explained, “Exposure to diverse viewpoints and experiences can be a powerful force in the socialization that occurs in our schools.”

As for next steps, both Welner and Lopez acknowledged nothing concrete was established as far as what Colorado should pursue, although the information from the conference will help in planning a response.

“The examples provided could serve as the context for school districts and state policymakers to consider taking a more affirmative step in encouraging diversity in a choice environment,” Lopez said. “Choice in and of itself neither promotes nor discourages diversity; rather, it is one potential tool among many that school districts and educators may use to help accomplish their broader educational goals.

“Districts often fail to implement a strategic plan that might be able to help them identify those goals that they wish to pursue and what tools, including charters, are available to help them accomplish those goals,” Lopez said.

Nick Toper ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

For more information …

To listen to a podcast of the January 23 conference, visit the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Education Web site at http://www.colorado.edu/education/podcasts/.

To read the Piton Foundation report, Economically Segregated Schools Hurt Poor Kids, Study Shows, go to http://www.piton.org/Admin/Article/TermPaper_May2002.pdf.

The text of the two U.S. Supreme Court decisions is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and search for document #18705 (Gratz v Bollinger (2002)) and document #18706 (Grutter v Bollinger (2003)).