A thought on enrollment, equity, charter schools, and choice

School enrollment distributions help reproduce social inequality in the United States. Since the first school opened its doors in this country, the U.S. has had (at best) separate and unequal schooling.

Brown vs. Board legally undercut de jure segregation, yet U.S. public schools are still faced with simple truths: Schools are segregated and socioeconomic status and race typically determine educational outcomes.

Court cases like Abbott in New Jersey have helped equalize funding for low-income communities in a variety of states, but enrollment distributions are still a primary driver of inequality. As the U.S. Supreme Court loudly declared in Brown vs. Board, and as history shows, separate is inherently unequal.

In addition to the economic resources needed to run a school, there are other social forces that drive inequality. These include forms of social and cultural capital that help historically advantaged members of society turn schooling experiences into economic gain.

Currently, with these concerns in mind, school choice policy advocates of say, charter schools, suggest they have the innovation in governance to solve the inequitable enrollment problem. These folks argue that charter schools allow parents to undercut the historic inequity of unfair enrollment practices because enrollments into their schools are open or based on lottery.

This is an interesting start; however, there have been a couple issues with charter school enrollment innovations in practice. One issue is that while charter schools undercut the process that made traditional schools segregated, they have showcased new processes that actually make their schools more segregated. A second issue is that with charter school policy the enrollment innovation has come with an additional governance innovation that should make us pause: Charter schools tend to be run by small groups of individuals who are not selected through a democratic election processes.

This is not to condone the fact that many traditional public schools are anti-democratic bureaucracies that find ways to scale down democracy through practice. In all instances, we should seek more democratic arrangements for schooling, not less. We can’t meet the needs of communities without asking them what their needs are.

Perhaps the answer to enrollment inequality, then, is a hybrid idea between the enrollment innovation that charter schools hope to achieve with an infusion of what Common Schools were supposed to do: Community controlled schools with open enrollment that seek integrative environments for students and families.

But how do we create these types of schools?

One idea, historically, has been to find ways to achieve integration within the traditional public school space. These ideas have ranged, but legal battles to support them seem bleak based on contemporary legal decisions from the Supreme Court and others, suggesting new strategies are needed.

Perhaps an alternative strategy is to co-opt charter school policy and use it to arrange for community-based, integrated schools. This is just the start of an idea. Though, regardless of the strategy deployed, the process will be messy. Still, policymakers need to find ways to unlock enrollment inequities to finally create the Common School promise where all children from all backgrounds learn together. This is the only way to truly achieve equal schooling for all.