Report: Charter School Segregation Study Flawed

Published August 2, 2010

A high-profile study claiming to expose increased racial segregation in charter schools is marred by flawed statistics, researchers at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform say.

The Civil Rights Project (CRP) at the University of California in Los Angeles made headlines earlier this year with a report alleging widespread racial segregation in charter schools. The report called on states to impose “civil rights standards” on charters, which are public schools run by independent or private operators.

But University of Arkansas researchers say the UCLA data “actually reveal small differences” in the level of segregation between charter schools and traditional public schools.

“We find the majority of students in the central cities of metropolitan areas, in both charter and traditional public schools, attend school in intensely segregated settings,” the Arkansas researchers write. “Our findings are similar to those in a 2009 report by RAND, in which researchers focused on segregation in five large metropolitan areas (Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and San Diego)—areas that were also included in the CRP report.”

The findings appear in the summer edition of Education Next, an education reform journal jointly published by Harvard’s Kennedy School and Stanford University.

Rural Sampling Skewed Results

Brian Kisida, a research associate at the University of Arkansas and one of the authors of the Education Next report, said the UCLA study reached its conclusions by comparing national racial data for schools with racial data for charter schools, which skews the results.

The results are skewed, Kisida explains, because the national average includes students from predominantly white rural communities, while charter schools tend to concentrate in inner cities and other urban areas where the racial makeup is weighted heavily toward minority populations.

“Of course the racial makeup is going to look different when comparing what are essentially different sets of populations,” Kisida said.

As the Education Next report put it, “Comparisons of simple averages at such a high level of aggregation can obscure wide differences in school-level demographics among both charter and traditional public schools. It is like having your feet in the oven and your head in the icebox and saying that, on average, the temperature is just right.”

The UCLA article also compared the racial mixture of charter schools to schools as a whole on a state-by-state basis. But Kisida points out that methodology included populations from places such as largely rural Missouri—where there are no charter schools—and compared them with more diverse places such as Kansas City and St. Louis, where dozens of charter schools are located.

CRP Defends Self

Representatives from UCLA did not respond to inquiries for this story, but the Civil Rights Project posted a lengthy rebuttal to the University of Arkansas critique on its website (

“Trends in the racial makeup of charter schools were examined at different levels of geography,” the UCLA researchers wrote in the CRP rebuttal. “As we describe in detail in our report, we aggregated school-level charter enrollment data to the national, state, and metropolitan level. The use of the latter geographic unit, metropolitan areas, stemmed from a deliberate methodological decision.”

The UCLA researchers argue their methodology adequately captured the demographic makeup of charter schools, citing a U.S. Education Department report and an Arizona study showing charter schools often draw students from outside traditional district boundaries.

“Given that charter schools can and do enroll students across traditional boundary lines, our analysis took into account the demographic composition of students in the entire metro area, as opposed to a single school district,” they explain.

Schools’ Locations ‘Irrelevant’

The UCLA authors argued the urban-rural divide is unimportant if charter schools draw students from over the district boundary lines.

“The urban concentration of charter schools is irrelevant if charter schools are drawing students from across boundary lines,” they write. “And, similar to the results from our analyses at the national or state level, in many of the metro areas containing at least 20 charter schools, minority segregation was higher in charter schools than in the metro’s regular public schools.”

Charters Favor Disadvantaged Kids

Kisida says he is not persuaded by the CRP’s rebuttal, adding the UCLA authors appear to miss the point of charter schools.

“The goal of the charter schools is to go into the inner cities and offer an alternative to the traditional inner city public school,” Kisida explained. “Because serving disadvantaged populations is the stated mission of many charter schools, they seek out locations near disadvantaged populations intentionally.”

“Instead of asking whether all students in charter schools are more likely to attend segregated schools than all students in traditional public schools everywhere, we should be comparing the racial composition of charter schools to that of nearby traditional public schools,” he said.

‘Brazen’ Deception Cited

Kisida pointed to one egregious example of flawed methodology. According to the UCLA report: “In some cases, like Idaho, charter school students across all races attend schools of white isolation: majorities of students of all races are in 90 to 100 percent white charter schools.”

But as Kisida and his colleagues note in Education Next: “Idaho is nearly 95 percent white. Obviously, this is not a charter phenomenon, yet the [UCLA] authors brazenly use this as evidence for their claims without making any mention of the corresponding figure for the traditional public schools in the state.”

A more sound statistical method, says Kisida, would compare the racial makeup of charter schools to the racial makeup of public schools in the same geographical location. A 2009 Rand Corp. study used that methodology and found no significant difference, Kisida said.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.