One of the early criticisms leveled against charter schools was that they were “skimming kids” – that the lottery enrollment policy used by charters resulted in the admission of primarily the brightest, most motivated students. This argument has faded (at least in Denver) since charters here serve the same demographics as traditional schools, as well as the undisputed fact that many charters with lottery enrollment have done poorly (it would be an odd and circular argument indeed that the lottery process results in skimming only by successful charters).
However, the pendulum has now swung to the other side. A new accusation making the rounds is that charter schools – many of whom are focused on low-income neighborhoods – are in fact increasing the economic segregation of our public school system.
It’s an odd argument on its face – the forced segregation of students – whether by class or race – is clearly not the same as a parent’s affirmative choice to attend a charter school. But still, the claim has now entered the conventional wisdom and is often repeated as fact. Which is a shame because when one looks at the data, at least in Denver, it’s also clearly not true.
The primary argument in the segregation claim is to compare charter schools with the average student population. In Denver, roughly 72% of students are low-income (as measured by the proportion eligible for free and reduced lunch, or FRL). Therefore, the argument goes, any school that serves a far higher proportion of low-income students is making our system more segregated.
But what’s overlooked is that there are virtually no “average” schools. It’s a bit like comparing a family to a national family average which includes 2.8 children. It’s pretty hard to match up.
As can be seen in the chart below, Denver has a wide distribution of low-income students, and there are almost no schools that have serve a student population anywhere close to the mean of roughly 72% FRL (all data is from the 2011 School Performance Framework, or SPF).
As the chart shows, there are 45% (52 schools total) of district schools with FRL over 90%. And there are 38% (eight total) of charter schools with FRL over 90%. And also interestingly, at the other end of the spectrum there are 16% of district schools (19 total) with FRL below 40%, compared to just 9.5% of charter schools (2 total). Against the mythical district average, almost any school can be compared unfavorably.
Let’s look at the same data in a slightly different way. The graph below ranks all 116 schools on the 2011 SPF by their FRL percentage. The red lines are charter schools, and the blue lines are district schools.
The distribution here is pretty clear – charter schools are proportioned about the same as district schools. And the data bears this out – there are 66.7% of charter schools that are equal or above 70% FRL (roughly the district mean), compared to 67.2% of traditional schools.
So, are public schools in Denver segregated? Yes. Are charter schools any more segregated than traditional schools? No. Much like other demographics, charter schools in Denver reflect the public school system.
Enter Selective Admissions
But let’s not stop there. With the data pretty clear that there is no difference between the segregation in charter schools and traditional schools, the analysis got me thinking back to the original claim – if schools that “skim” the best students are serving equal proportions of low-income students. And in Denver (as in most cities) there is a group of schools that are clearly skimming their students.
Denver is full of selective admissions schools and programs. These are schools, or programs within schools, which select their students based on some criteria – be it academic prowess or artistic talent. Many have application forms equal to private schools, including test scores and personal references.
It’s a little hard to specify all of the selective admissions school and programs – I went through the SchoolChoice material and included schools or programs which were labeled as magnets (a list follows at the end of this piece). It’s often not clear how large the magnet program is within a larger school. But I would bet that the selective admissions programs within these schools serve a far smaller percentage of less low-income students than do the geographic admissions.
Somewhat conveniently, there is exactly the same number of charter schools on the SPF as there are schools with selective admissions (21 of each). If you include three types of schools – charters (which have lottery enrollment), traditional schools (geographic enrollment) and magnet schools (selective enrollment), the graph looks like this:
Unlike charter schools, the selective schools skew pretty heavily to the right, including 10 of the 23 schools that serve the lowest percentages of low-income students.
And once again, the data shows what the graphic teases. There are still 66.7% of charter schools above 70% FRL. There are now 61.2% of traditional schools above the district mean. But there are just 33.3% of selective admissions schools with a proportion of low-income students equal to or above the district mean. In fact, almost half of selective admissions schools serve less than 50% FRL, and almost one in five serve less than 20% FRL students.
Why does this matter? Because in a district that is 72% FRL, every school that serves even 20% FRL students requires four other schools serving 85% FRL students. There are four selective admissions schools serving less than 20% FRL students within DPS, which means there must be 16 other schools serving 85% or more FRL students.
So is there a type of school within DPS that is systematically contributing to segregation within our public school system? You bet. But they are not charter schools, and they are not a secret. They are selective admissions schools – including many of the most popular programs in the district—and they are hiding in plain sight.
Note: Selective admissions schools and programs include: Polaris, Cory, Denver School of the Arts, Carson, Southmoor, Edison, Lincoln Elementary, Teller, Sandoval, DCIS, Hamilton, Morey, George Washington, Denison, Valdez, Kunsmiller, CEC, Hallett, Gust, Bryant-Webster, and Fairmont.