|Little Rock Central High|
The National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education has a new study just out on the effect of charter schools on racial integration. As the study observes in its introduction, many school desegregation advocates have argued that if families have freedom of choice in their children’s schooling, the families will exercise this choice to maintain or increase racial segregation. As Steve Caldas and I discussed in our book, Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation, this line of thinking led to the coercive desegregation movement, which sought to dictate student assignments to schools in order to achieve true racial integration. Caldas and I maintain that this movement was self-defeating because policies of force contradicted the goals and interests of those who were able to move across school districts or out of the public school system and into the private. One of the examples we give is Little Rock, Arkansas, important for its historic symbolism because of the highly televised battle over the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957-58. Although Central High has long been acclaimed as a glowing success story in desegregation, by the time Bill Clinton visited the school to celebrate this success forty years later, it had changed from an all-white school to one that was two-thirds black, with much of the white minority internally segregated from the majority into the school’s advanced classes.
Naturally, those who believe that freedom of choice should be limited or eliminated for purposes of desegregation oppose charter schools because free choice is one of the core principles of the charter movement. However, the authors of the NCSPE study look at that historic district of Little Rock and they find that charter schools there actually show less racial segregration than the district’s non-charter schools. They maintain that this is because schools are based on place of residence and that charter schools give people reasons to send their children to schools in other neighborhoods.
This is, of course, a case study of one school district and it is possible that a different district could yield different results. I would not conclude that charter schools necessarily produce more racial integration, or that this should be one of the goals of school choice. Still, I think the authors have a solid argument. If families see sending their children to schools with children from other neighborhoods and from other backgrounds as in the interests of their own children, then they will send their children to those schools. If they don’t, then they won’t, and efforts at coercion will backfire.