Sahm: NYC Charters Are Leading the Way on School Integration

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced a new diversity plan this week that includes many commonsense reforms, as well as an advisory group that will gather community input and examine additional proposals to lessen the racial and socioeconomic segregation still too prevalent in New York City schools.

One hopes that the advisory group will include input from the city’s charter schools sector. In some ways, it is leading the way on school integration.

One advantage charters have over traditional schools is that they can draw students from beyond restrictive neighborhood zones. Some charter leaders use this freedom to purposely create diverse student bodies. Several have joined a new grassroots organization, the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition, which supports the creation and expansion of high-quality, racially and economically diverse public charter schools.

Founded in 2014, the coalition has grown to include more than 100 schools in 14 states and the District of Columbia. In the city, the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition includes nine charter organizations: Brooklyn Prospect, Brooklyn Urban Garden, Citizens of the World, Community Roots, Compass, Hebrew Public, International Charter, NY French American, and Success Academy (which has six schools in the coalition).

Sonia Park, executive director of the coalition, explains that “there’s a lot of research that shows the benefits of having diverse student populations, academically and socially.” But she notes: “Fifty years after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, we still have a long way to go.”

At Brooklyn Prospect’s four schools, the student body is 6 percent Asian, 17 percent black, 32 percent Hispanic, and 36 percent white. Students boast math and English proficiency rates well above city averages. Dan Rubenstein, Brooklyn Prospect’s founder, notes that the city’s high-performing, diverse charters offer parents “a world-class education, as well as an integrated environment.”

Interestingly, super-high-performing Success Academy, the bête noire of charter opponents, has several schools that are among the most diverse in the city. For example, the student population of Success Academy in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, is 6 percent Asian, 34 percent black, 31 percent Hispanic, and 26 percent white.

Opponents sometimes advance a lose-lose argument against charters: When they serve a mostly minority, low-income population, they are accused of “segregation,” but if they serve a socioeconomically diverse student population, they are accused of “creaming” more able students. But by creating excellent schools that any parent would be pleased to send their child to and taking concrete steps to promote integration, the city’s intentionally diverse charters offer a model for traditional schools.

New York state law complicates the ability of charters to create diverse student populations by mandating that they offer preference to students residing in the community school district where the school is located. A “comparability clause” also mandates that charters serve a population in line with community school district averages. If a district is segregated, these policies perversely encourage charters to replicate that segregation.

Nevertheless, charters are finding ways to lead. Although no school can use race as a factor in admissions, many charters can and do offer a weighted lottery that offers preference to economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, and students with learning disabilities.

These innovations offer a template for districtwide “controlled choice” efforts — an approach championed by city council members Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres that would ensure an even distribution of high- and low-income, special needs, and English language learner students. If the city wanted to go bolder, however, it could consider a “common enrollment” system similar to those put into place in Denver, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Newark, and other cities.

Under common enrollment, parents list their top choices, including district and charter schools, and a computer algorithm matches selections with available seats. In Denver, for example, students retain a default, zoned assignment, but the school choice application offers parents a single application, timeline, and process for applying to any school in the city. (Participation for charters is voluntary, but most enlist.)

Such a system for elementary and middle schools would be similar to New York City’s existing high school enrollment process, but without the admissions-screening methods and with a strong community preference (parents generally don’t want to send elementary school students too far from home). The high school system hasn’t led to great improvements in diversity, but it wasn’t designed to. A well-crafted elementary and middle school common enrollment system could deliver greater equity and diversity in city schools. (If it were to include charters, it would require a rewrite of the state’s charter law.)

The de Blasio administration deserves credit for the sensible steps it is taking to foster diversity in schools. As the conversation moves forward, New Yorkers should not be afraid to consider even bolder reforms — and should be sure to include charters in the conversation.

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