N.C. Policy Watch reporter Billy Ball recently published a lengthy piece attacking former Charlotte mayor, charter school founder, and attorney Richard Vinroot for his one-page overview of charter school data and a few extemporaneous remarks about them.  According to the critics quoted in the story, one of Mr. Vinroot’s most egregious sins was comparing statewide percentages of charter and district students by race.  Ball calls them “distortions.”  A better description would be “incomplete.”

Comparing the two types of public schools – charter and district – is not as straightforward as it may appear, even for those who do not analyze education policy for a living.  Certainly, Mr. Vinroot recognizes that a single table cannot capture the complexity of student enrollment in district and charter schools, but that does not stop charter school opponents of accusing him of “mask[ing] the reality of segregation by race and class.”

School-level differences are determined by two different admissions mechanisms. On one hand, parents must apply for admission to a charter school and, if applications outnumber seats, enter their child into a lottery where a chosen few are selected in a traditional or weighted lottery.  Districts simply enroll all eligible students and assign their children to schools based on geography and other factors.  As such, it is much easier for a district to engineer a “diverse” school because school officials have the power to create attendance boundaries that consider the race, ethnicity, and wealth of the community and assign students accordingly.  Charters are individual entities that are subject to statutory enrollment caps, grade-level limitations, and receive no state or local funding for facilities that could accommodate a larger and possibly more diverse student population.

Nevertheless, around 850 of the state’s 2,432 district schools had a student population that was at least 65 percent white last year.  Likewise, nearly 800 district schools had a student population that at least 65 percent nonwhite.  Some districts are simply racially and socioeconomically homogenous.  Others are intentionally or inadvertently segregated along racial, ethnic, and/or socioeconomic lines.  Regardless of the cause, critics of charter school demographics seldom mention that districts encounter troubling demographic dilemmas of their own or, as some may say, masking the reality of segregation by race and class.

In the end, however, this episode has little to do with Richard Vinroot, his presentation materials, or the content and use of those materials.  It has everything to do with the fact that North Carolina’s charter schools add thousands of new students every year.  And as parents have greater access to high-quality charter schools in their communities, they become more sympathetic to educational alternatives, diverting students (and political power) from the district system that Mr. Vinroot’s opponents venerate.