Kudos to the Providence Journal for raising the issue of school segregation in Rhode Island as part of their Race in RI series. Patrick Anderson's piece on Hartford, Connecticut's magnet program has opened some discussion of the role that magnet schools -- or charters -- can play in desegregation. It has not been a hot topic for several decades in the Ocean State. Rhode Island's Board of Education recently unanimously approved a five year strategic plan that makes no mention of integration or desegregation.
When Anderson, "Asked about the Connecticut desegregation model, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner said mayoral charter schools and vocational schools give the Ocean State the tools it needs to integrate, although he added that he is looking at using federal funds to attract middle-class students to low-income schools."
The underlying difference between using magnet schools or charter schools to promote desegregation is that magnet schools can be deployed as part of an organized regional or statewide plan, whereas in Rhode Island, charters are independent actors. The point of charters is to create innovation outside of district and state planning.
Blackstone Valley Prep and the International Charter School in Pawtucket, for example, can take credit for creating successful integrated, diverse schools. However, they have no responsibility whatsoever for desegregation outside their own walls. For example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data, the percentage of students receiving free (not reduced) lunch in the Central Falls School District's elementary and middle schools has increased dramatically between 2009 and 2013 (the most recent data), with Ella Risk School going from 62% free lunch eligible in '08-'09 to 86% eligible in '12-'13, and Veterans Memorial Elementary going from 66% to 94% on the same measure.
Whether or not these changes are attributable to increasing charter school enrollment during that period is unknown, but it is a disturbing and suggestive trend. More importantly, even if RI charters were found to be increasing segregation in sending districts, it simply not the charters' problem or responsibility. Nor, for that matter, is it RIDE's problem, and to the extent it is a problem for the Central Falls School District, they've either not noticed or don't mind.
Further, charters are free to pursue policies which increase segregation within their schools. For their second group of charters, Rhode Island Mayoral Academies chose a management agency that specializes in running highly racially segregated schools, typically 99% African American and Hispanic. Not surprisingly, the Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy is also segregated by race, with only 5% of students reporting as white, much less than their sending districts: Providence at 9% white, Cranston 60%, North Providence 65% and Warwick at 83% white. It is a regional school for poor black and brown students.
We cannot use charters to execute a systematic desegregation plan. The entire point of charters is to exclude them from larger policy constraints. That's what makes them the wrong tool for the job. Magnets, as district or state-run schools, can be bound to a greater agenda. They don't represent a full solution, but at least it could be a real plan.