California charter schools (segregation concerns)

"Charter schools raise question of new segregation." The Sacramento Bee (CA), 2/17/2011 
For more than 50 years, the notion that racially mixed schools are in the best interests of all students has been a basic underpinning of America's educational landscape.

But increasingly across the nation, publicly funded charter schools are popping up that call out their intent to cater to specific racial or ethnic groups – African American, Latino or Hmong students, for example, who on average have far lower test scores and far higher dropout rates than whites and some other Asian groups.

Is it a return to segregation? Is it legal?

Those are the questions being debated after Margaret Fortune, a former adviser to two California governors and a leader in education reform circles, successfully petitioned the Sacramento County Board of Education for five publicly funded charter schools aimed at closing the achievement gap for African American students.

Fortune said her objective is to serve the lowest-performing student subgroup in the region, and that group happens to be African American. Addressing their needs isn't segregation, she said, because parents can choose whether to send their children to her charter schools…

Both supporters and opponents of Fortune's vision came out in force this month when the county Board of Education debated her petition to open 10 charter schools. After an eight-hour meeting, Fortune was awarded five schools countywide over the next five years, with the possibility for five more.

While some critics opposed the proliferation of charters in general, others expressed discomfort at an educational mission defined by race. Board President Harold Fong, the lone trustee to vote against the proposal, said he couldn't get past the feeling that Fortune was essentially creating segregated schools…

A key question for critics of the model is whether a school aimed at one race or ethnicity feels accessible to students from other groups.

UCLA education professor Gary Orfield contends Fortune's charters and others like it are instituting a new form of segregation…

"To isolate these kids from other races isn't preparing them for the future," Orfield said. "I can understand the frustration that leads to (the creation of these charters). African American kids aren't doing what their parents want them to accomplish. But this doesn't cure that problem."
Orfield's argument falls flat with Fortune's supporters, who argue African American students are already isolated at the bottom rungs of American achievement…

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