NEPC Review: Differences by Design? Student Composition in Charter Schools with Different Academic Models (American Enterprise Institute, February 2017)
A report by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Differences by Design?, compares differences in approaches and demographics between and among charter school models and local “traditional public schools.” Using three national data sets, the report effectively captures the national universe of charter schools. It empirically demonstrates that cream-skimming occurs and that charters segregate by income, special education, race and ethnicity, in that different demographic groups attend different types of charter schools. Charter schools, the authors contend, provide differentiated and “innovative schooling options” through varied academic models that cater to, and ultimately reflect, parental choices for their children. The resulting de facto segregation is presented as a benign byproduct of beneficial choices differentially associated with different racial and ethnic groups. They contend this is “in line with a properly functioning charter sector.” Unfortunately, the report does not demonstrate familiarity with the research on parent decision-making or with the extensive research suggesting that charter schools are not particularly innovative in the curricular or instructional options. Despite what the report claims, traditional public schools do, in fact, offer various academic model specializations like the ones offered by the charter schools. Ultimately, the report’s dismissive characterization of de facto segregation in charters, as a benign byproduct of parental choice, is at odds with the purpose and aims of equitable public education.