Jenn Ayscue of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA and UNC Charlotte researchers Amy Hawn Nelson, Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, Jason Giersch, and Martha Cecilia Bottia published a report this week titled “Charters as a Driver of Resegregation.”  After reading the report, I’m not convinced.

The authors bill the report as an exploration of the direct and indirect causes of resegregation using the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) as a case study.  They argue that the direct cause of resegregation is the “departure of some middle-class, academically proficient students who are white or Asian from traditional public schools for charters.”  The indirect cause is the “political activism of suburban parents who threatened a middle-class exodus from CMS to the charter sector if new assignment boundaries did not honor their current neighborhood school assignments.”  According to the report, both factors inhibit the ability of the school board and central office staff to create school assignments that are sensitive to racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic demographics of students.  In other words, the issue is exit and voice.

The terms “exit” and “voice” are a reference to Albert Hirschman’s 1970 book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States.  Hirschman argued that exit and voice were rational responses to a decline in quality or dissatisfaction with a product or service.  In the case of CMS, parents who are concerned about the academic quality of their school or object to aspects of the curriculum have a choice to leave the district to enroll in a private, home, or charter school or voice their concerns with school leaders in the hope that it will persuade them to change.  Those who are loyal to the district consider neither (at least publicly).

As the title of the study implies, the authors examine only one type of exit, the move to charter schools.  It is an unusual decision of their part, considering that the number of home and private school students in Mecklenburg County is more than double the number of charter students.  According to the logic of their argument, the departure of middle-class and academically proficient white and Asian students for home and private schools would be just as responsible, if not more so, for resegregation than charter schools.

But the argument holds less weight when you examine charter enrollment trends.  In 2016, Mecklenburg charter schools became majority minority, that is, nonwhite students outnumber white students.  Last year, 54 percent of charter students in the county were nonwhite, compared to 46 percent white.  This is a stark contrast to 2013 when the percentage of white students reached 56 percent.  As new charter schools opened, nonwhite students began flocking to the schools.  Between 2013 and 2017, the percentage of nonwhite students in charters increased by 127 percent, while the increase in white enrollment was only 54 percent.  (See Notes 1 and 2.)

While some of these charter schools are “racially imbalanced,” it is partly due to the opening of new charters that serve disadvantaged students, which unfortunately come largely from nonwhite populations.  The decision of nonwhite parents to choose a racially or ethnically homogenous charter school is a rational decision because they perceive that the charter has advantages that the district schools do not, such as safety, stability, proximity, and academic rigor.  A school with a lack of racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic diversity may be an acceptable trade-off for nonwhite parents who prioritize other factors.  Yet, for the researchers, the exit of nonwhite students appears to be less problematic than the exit of white students to charter schools.

Moving on to the issue of indirect influence or voice, the researchers fail to describe the attitudes, motivations, and political activism of the white suburban parents who object to changes to CMS’s attendance zones.  They write about two voices – the mayor of Matthews and CMS school board member Rhonda Lennon – but it is not clear how representative they are of white suburban parents.  It is a mistake to generalize, without survey results or some other type of data, that the mayor and school board member are in lock-step with their constituents on the issue.

And even if those in the white suburbs spoke in a unified voice, it is not clear from the report that school leaders made only modest changes to the assignment plan due to their advocacy.  In other words, how do we know if there is a causal relationship here?  The researchers assume that school leaders settled on a less aggressive assignment plan due to white suburban parents’ political activism (and the threat of exit).  A more likely explanation is that the final assignment plan was based on multiple considerations after listening to multiple constituencies.

Most importantly, school leaders must have known that white suburban parents in Mecklenburg County can’t actually follow through on their threat to exit for charter schools en masse.  That is because charter schools in the area have unforgiving wait lists with thousands of parents vying for handfuls of seats.  Families in the suburbs are stuck unless they opt for home or private education, which are sectors excluded from this report.

If school assignment is based on the address of the student, some degree of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic segregation will occur.  If the researchers want CMS to create a system of diverse schools, they should start by allowing district students to select their schools, rather than hope that school leaders will gerrymander attendance zones.   And if school leaders want white suburban parents to remain in CMS schools, they will address their concerns and cultivate trust and loyalty among the group threatening to exit the system.  Studies that blame them for the resegregating the district’s schools is probably not the best way to do this.

Note 1: My focus on race and ethnicity, rather than socioeconomic status, is intentional.  Researchers often use the percentage of students participating in the National Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) program as a proxy for the share of disadvantaged students.  But it is an inaccurate measure.  Some charter schools do not participate in the program, so the percentage of disadvantaged students may be underestimated for charters.  Charter schools aside, researchers acknowledge that FRL percentages do not accurately capture the socioeconomic status of students in school districts.  As Michael Harwell of the University of Minnesota notes in a new report, “researchers generally agree that FRL is a poor SES [socioeconomic status] measure, since it fails to validly reflect access to financial resources, shows reduced levels of participation as students age, and misclassifies, on average, approximately 20% of students.”

Note 2: These figures do not include enrollment in the state’s two virtual charter schools.  They also do not account for students who cross county lines to attend charter schools.  Finally, Asian students are included in the “nonwhite” category.