RALEIGH — It’s impossible for North Carolina’s public charter schools to pursue racial and ethnic enrollment targets, thanks to conflicting sections of state law. That’s the key finding in a new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report.
“Critics who crow about ‘racial isolation’ and ‘hypersegregated learning’ in North Carolina’s public charter schools ignore a key fact: charter school operators have little impact on the racial and ethnic makeup in their classrooms,” said report author Terry Stoops, JLF Director of Education Studies. “State law requires those charter school operators to fill open slots by a colorblind lottery any time the demand for space exceeds the supply.”
Stoops blames a “contradiction between two sections of the same statute” for confusion about student diversity in public charter schools. His report offers recommendations to address the contradiction.
“First, education officials and legislators should recognize the fairness of maintaining a colorblind method of enrollment in public charter schools,” Stoops said. “A lottery system embedded in the state charter school statute already ensures that colorblind method.”
A preference for colorblind enrollment leads to several action recommendations, Stoops said.
“First, the State Board of Education’s legal adviser should direct the board to delete a 1998 policy on charter schools’ racial and ethnic balance, which does not add any substantive policy guidance to the existing charter school statute,” he said. “If the State Board of Education is unwilling to act, the General Assembly should invalidate that 1998 policy and strike the affirmative action clause in the charter school statute.”
Stoops also urges top education officials to admit their mistakes. “Senior officials with the Department of Public Instruction and State Board of Education should issue a joint apology to all charter schools in the state for their refusal to ask the General Assembly to correct contradictions in the existing charter statute.”
Lawmakers can take another step to boost diversity within public charter schools, Stoops said. “The General Assembly should eliminate enrollment caps for charter schools, thereby giving minority applicants a greater chance of gaining admission via the lottery.”
Stoops’ research details the contradiction in existing state law. While one piece of the charter law mandates the enrollment lottery, another requires charter school enrollment to “reflect the racial and ethnic composition” of the county population or local school district, he said.
“It is impossible for charter schools to use the random lottery mechanism and a nonrandom affirmative action policy simultaneously,” he said. “That’s a contradiction in the original charter law. The 1998 affirmative action guidelines did nothing to fix the contradiction.”
The state’s own lawyers say charter schools have no leeway to ignore the lottery mandate, Stoops said. “The North Carolina Attorney General’s office has determined that charter schools are not permitted to set aside seats for minority students.”
Stoops also tackles myths about charter school diversity. “While the affirmative action mandate was designed to protect minority families, research indicates that an overwhelming number of minority parents are not concerned about the supposed lack of diversity in charter schools their children attend,” he said. “A study connected with a 2007 doctoral dissertation showed four out of five African-American parents called the lack of racial diversity insignificant as long as their children were successful academically.”
Most charter schools in North Carolina already fall within or near the range of minority enrollment maintained by traditional district schools in the same school jurisdiction, Stoops said.
“It’s important to note that districtwide averages obscure wide variations in minority enrollment within school districts,” he said. “By comparing charter school enrollment to school district averages, critics perpetuate the mistaken belief that school districts do not have traditional schools dominated by minority or white students. State statistics confirm that 57 traditional public schools across North Carolina have minority enrollment of 90 percent or higher.”
Previous efforts to address the contradictory state charter school law have gone nowhere, Stoops said. “Calls to clarify the statute or otherwise correct the problem have gone unanswered,” he said. “The State Board of Education did not discuss its charter school affirmative action policy at all from 2003 to 2010. Neither the board nor the General Assembly has responded to a 2008 blue ribbon commission recommendation calling for amendments that would eliminate the contradiction.”
Now is the time for action, Stoops said. “Critics ignore the facts when they carp about public charter schools’ lack of diversity,” he said. “But at least those critics shine a light on an important issue. Either the State Board of Education or the General Assembly needs to take steps to ensure charter schools are free from contradictory state mandates.”
Terry Stoops’ Spotlight report, “Charter School Diversity: Too black, too white, or just right?,” is available at the JLF Web site. For more information, please contact Stoops at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].