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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Charter schools, great places for segregation to occur

From the Orlando Sentinel

by David Weber

Segregation is making a comeback in Florida's public schools with the new wave of charter schools springing up across the state.

One out of eight charter schools has a student body with 90 percent or more of a single race or ethnicity, an Orlando Sentinel analysis of the state's 456 taxpayer-financed charters shows. That compares with one out of 12 traditional public schools.

Those top heavy charters are adding to the list of out-of-balance public schools that have perplexed educators since integration 40 years ago. Educators have worked for decades to reduce the imbalance through rezoning, school-transfer options, magnet schools and other devices to shift students and make schools more diverse.

But the charter trend is toward segregation, and more of the charters with skewed enrollments may be on the way.

Charter supporters say they have the best intentions and are following state law. Besides, they argue, students are not being forced to attend schools favoring one race or ethnicity. Parents make that choice, they say.

But critics say segregation is not a model Florida should follow in creating new public schools.

Today, many of the new Florida charters are targeting black or Hispanic students. There are charters for Jewish, Greek, Puerto Rican and Native American students, too.

Enrollment at some can run to 99 percent black or Hispanic, with not a single white student at 19 charters and more than a quarter of all Florida charters with 10 percent or fewer white students, according to the state's official count in October.

Equally troubling, civil-rights advocates say, is the rise in charters with largely white student populations, evoking memories of "white flight" from public to private schools across the South during integration.

Such schools appear in communities, including some in Orange County, where parents say they are dissatisfied with the size, academics and discipline at traditional schools their children are zoned to attend. Typically the public schools they are avoiding have a broad racial, ethnic and socioeconomic mix.

State lawmakers and the Florida Department of Education are not concerned with the demographic trends in the charter-school system they created. But some local school-district officials are beginning to question the shift toward segregation in charters.

"It is shocking. I can't say that it is deliberate, but it is there," said Christine Moore, an Orange County School Board member who sees it as a step backward for Orange and Florida public schools.

Moore is concerned because half of Orange's 28 charters have populations skewed two-thirds or more toward a single group, compared with the county's roughly one-third white, one-quarter black, one-third Hispanic mix of students.

The Sentinel's analysis shows that more than half of the state's charters — 54 percent — have two-thirds or more of a single race or ethnicity, compared with 44 percent for traditional public schools.

"I don't know what the solution is, but we need to slow up on all of this charter stuff until we see what the consequences are," Moore said.

That's not likely to happen. The Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott are pushing for changes in state law that would bring additional charters.

"What the charter schools are doing is addressing a need," said state Sen. David Simmons, a Maitland Republican and charter-school supporter. "Just as a matter of fact, right now those needs are reflected with the makeup of those schools."

Orange School Board member Kat Gordon, whose district is majority African-American, does not agree. It is a return to segregation, says Gordon, who is frustrated with the direction.

"No! No! We do not want to go back to where we were in the 1950s and '60s," said Gordon, who is African-American. "They have got to make sure they have diversity in those schools."

Orange school-district officials have begun encouraging several charters with skewed student enrollments to become more in line with surrounding public schools, although the district cannot force the change.

Already, more than 155,000 students across the state, 6 percent, are enrolled in charters, including about 18,000 in Central Florida. Orange, Seminole, Lake, Osceola and Volusia counties all have tax-funded charter schools that are exempt from many regulations facing mainstream schools. For example, charters do not have to meet the same class-size restrictions as regular schools and often are not graded by the state.

A niche market

For more than a decade, charter schools in Florida have been promoted as a way for desperate inner-city parents to get their children out of low-performing public schools and into superior classrooms.

But the reality at many Florida charters is much different. Those that don't target a race or ethnicity seek a niche market such as students interested in science — the Orlando Science Middle School, for example — or the arts, including a ballet charter set to open in Volusia County next fall.

Some, such as the Imagine School in south Lake, were set up in fast-growing counties to relieve school boards of the burden of building another school. Other charters are military academies, focus on foreign languages or even specialize in playing golf.

Often there is nothing academically wrong with the regular public schools that students are leaving. Many earn A's or B's in state grading.

But parents who don't want their kids to attend "just another vanilla public school" have a choice through charters, Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith says.

He said diversity in charters often depends on where they are located, with those in high minority areas naturally having corresponding enrollments.

Still, schools should have racial and ethnic balance when local logistics permit, he said.

"It is a concern we need to monitor," Smith said, adding that he does not think it is a big issue right now.

In Miami-Dade County alone, there are 25 charters with Hispanic populations of 90 percent or more, well above the school district's 65 percent Hispanic enrollment.

The imbalance occurs across the state as well, with Escambia County's seven charter schools, for example, divided among three for blacks — one at 98 percent and 99 percent at another — and four largely for whites.

Orange and Broward counties also have charters identified by race.

Principal Jennifer Porter-Smith says the Nap Ford charter in the shadow of the old Amway Arena in downtown Orlando serves as a focal point for the historically black Parramore neighborhood.

Porter-Smith acknowledges that "my population is not diverse." It is 92 percent black, with a handful of Hispanics and a couple of white kids.

"We are a neighborhood school, so we give preference to children who live in the neighborhood," Porter-Smith said. "But we are open to anyone in the county."

But the curriculum is geared toward black students living in poverty and is designed to "address some real historical societal ills," said Porter-Smith, who along with others defends targeting racial or ethnic groups.

R.J. Lawson, owner of Central Charter School in Broward County, said she was unaware that 98 percent of the about 620 students at her elementary school are black, but is unconcerned.

"We did not skew it one way or the other," Lawson said. "We focus on students. We are not looking at diversity."

Of Broward's 68 charter schools, 24 are two-thirds or more black, and seven have enrollments of 90 percent or more black. Countywide, black students make up just less than 40 percent of school enrollment.

Jody Perry, director of charter schools for the Broward school system, said the district has little control over racial makeup of charter schools.

'It is a choice process, and parents can choose to enroll the student in the charter that best meets their needs," she said.

Other schools also skewed

Besides, a lot of traditional public schools are heavily of one race or ethnicity, charter advocates say.

Nap Ford Principal Porter-Smith points to several in the Orlando area, including nearly all-black Eccleston, Washington Shores and Orange Center elementary schools, as well as Jones High.

But others point out that many regular public schools serving minorities struggle with the underfunding, high teacher turnover, poorer-quality teachers and low student performance that often are duplicated in charters with similar demographics.

"It is important to consider if we are creating these patterns in charter schools that public schools have worked for decades to alleviate," said Erica Frankenberg, an assistant professor of education at Penn State University, who studies segregation in charter schools.

With high startup costs, charter schools often struggle for years to get the financial stability of established public schools. Minority charters typically don't have deep-pocket backers such as those paying $250 to $1,000 to attend a benefit in June for a new charter school on ritzy Marco Island in Collier County.

School Principals Porter-Smith in Orange and Lawson in Broward agree cash is short, and Lawson says juggling money to cover rent, instructional materials and teacher pay is a constant concern.

Because charter-school teachers often are paid less than those in traditional schools, teacher quality can suffer. The black Tiger Academy for primary students in Duval County indicated in a state report that last year not one of its teachers met federal standards to teach basic reading and math.

Frankenberg said early charter claims that they would be more integrated because of open enrollment have not proved true.

Her research through the Civil Rights Project out of the University of California at Los Angeles found Florida's black and Hispanic students were more likely to be isolated in charter schools.

The study, released last year, showed that more than 40 percent of black charter students were enrolled in schools composed of 90 percent or more minorities. Correspondingly, white charter schools were more likely than traditional public schools to have student populations that were 90 percent or more white.

Experts say diverse schools help students develop both socially and academically.

New research by the Century Foundation, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank, shows that the best way to improve academic achievement of low-income students, who often are minorities, is to scatter them among more affluent schools rather than keep them grouped in poverty.

"Diversity is an important factor in a well-rounded, balanced education," said Anna-Marie Cote, deputy superintendent for educational equity with Seminole County schools, which are among the highest-performing in the state. or 407-883-7885,0,1317711,full.story

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