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Examining the Impact of Charter Schools on Growing Income Segregation

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As the number of charter schools has grown over the past two decades, so has the level of student segregation by income at the district level. The relationship between these two trends was the focus of recent research by a faculty-student team in American University’s School of Public Affairs (SPA).

Professor Dave Marcotte and Kari Dalane, SPA/PhD ‘22, analyzed a national sample of district-level data from 1998 to 2015 showing that segregation of low-income students increased by 15 percent in large school districts. The growth of charter schools during that same period contributed to separations based on class in public schools, the study revealed.

The findings were published in the journal Educational Researcher in October and also in The Seattle Times.

A charter school receives government funding but operates independently of the established state school system. These schools may offer alternative educational opportunities and methods compared to those of traditional public schools and have grown in popularity and general availability. However, the researchers note that the democratizing effects of charter school expansion on segregation are modest because these schools are still relatively limited in number.

 “About six to seven percent of all kids in public schools are in charter schools,” Marcotte said. “So even though charter enrollments expanded in the past 20 years and they have had some effect on the aggregate level of segregation, it still hasn’t been huge because they remain a small part of the overall landscape.”

Dalane said she collaborated with Marcotte on the study because her primary research interest is inequality in K-12 education.  

“This project allowed us to explore an understudied factor that may contribute to inequality: socioeconomic segregation. This topic is important given the rising income inequality in our country, the persistence of the income-based achievement gap over time, and the rapid growth in the charter sector,” said Dalane.

Since the American public education system is built on the ideal that all children have a chance at a similar education regardless of economic standing, Marcotte said expansion of charter schools threatens the possibility of equal access to educational opportunity.

“I hope these findings make people aware that choice options have the potential to exacerbate inequality,” Marcotte said. “Any district superintendent or parent ought to be aware and mindful that this could have consequences we didn’t intend.”

Marcotte has received a grant from the Smith Richardson Foundation to continue to study whether the growing concentration of children by socio-economic status within schools is related to charter school expansion.