After Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District, was criticized for commenting earlier this week that charter schools are not solely responsible for racial segregation in public schools, ASD officials said that the lack of diversity within its own charter schools is due to historic housing and school zoning trends and the unique restrictions placed on the ASD in state law.

“The schools we’re inheriting that have been in these systems for a long time – they’re already racially segregated schools. They’re schools where one in 10 kids reads on grade level,” Elliot Smalley, a spokesman for the ASD, which is tasked with improving the state’s worst schools, said on Friday.

“We absolutely believe segregation is an issue…but it’s unfair to suggest that it’s all on charter schools. It’s on communities, it’s on schools, it’s on everyone,” he said.

The state-run district is required by the First to the Top law to serve only students who are zoned to schools ranked in the bottom five percent in the state. “It’s clear what our charge is – it’s to serve the kids who are zoned to our schools, to serve our neighborhoods,” Smalley said. Charter school advocates in Tennessee are petitioning for students who are not zoned to priority schools to also be able to attend ASD schools.

Acceptable separation?

Barbic landed in hot water earlier this week after an event at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, highlighting disputes in Tennessee and nationwide about which students charter schools should serve. News outlets reported that the state official had said that some level of segregation in charter schools was “acceptable.”

House Democrats denounced Barbic’s comments: “Only one day after the nation paused to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is disturbing to hear the head of our Achievement School District downplay the role of diversity in a well-rounded education,” said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh in a press release. “Too many people have fought too hard to bring about an integrated, well balanced school system for comments like this to move us towards resegregation.”

Nashville Public Radio later clarified that Barbic himself had not said that segregation in the schools is acceptable, but the comments are still causing ripples: Representatives from the state’s Black Caucus said the comments were troublesome on Thursday.

A spokeswoman for state representative Larry Miller, a Democrat from Memphis and a member of the black caucus, said that representatives are planning to arrange a meeting with Barbic and would not issue an official statement on the comments until after that meeting.

Smalley said that while Barbic was open to discussing the issue further, no meetings had been arranged.

Barbic’s remarks, as reported by Nashville Public Radio, follow:

“I mean, absolutely diversity is important. But the fact is schools reflect the neighborhood. Nashville is not a diverse city. This idea of living in these mixed income, mixed race neighborhoods across the city is a great goal. It’s not reality. To talk about charters as segregating the population, like Art (Fuller, head of Knowledge Academy in the old Hickory Hollow mall) said, charters are representations of the community.

“So I think you’ve got to be about quality. Yes we want diversity but I just think we got to be honest about the situation and speak honestly about race and class, which goes way beyond the power of a school and not start to throw charters into a place where really they’re not responsible for the neighborhood demographic patterns of Nashville over the last 100 years.”

Who should charter schools serve?

The state-run district oversees a number of charter schools, which take over priority schools and are charged with dramatically improving their performance. Unlike other charter schools, which can run lotteries or take application, ASD schools are required to enroll only students who are zoned to priority schools, including any student who was zoned to the school before it was taken over over.

Those students are overwhelmingly African-American and poor: Some 96 percent of the state-run district’s 2,000 students were African-American in the 2012-13 school year year, according to the state’s report card. That same year, Memphis City Schools’ student population was about 81 percent African-American, and Davidson County Schools, which includes Nashville, was about 45 percent African-American.

Smalley said that while approximately 24 percent of students in the state of Tennessee are African-American, 92 percent of students in priority schools eligible for the ASD are African-American.

Outside the ASD, in Tennessee, charter schools were limited to serving at-risk students until 2011. That restriction has since been lifted, but most charter schools in the state still aim to serve that group. A charter school aimed at middle class students in Nashville drew fire last year for targeting middle-class students, prompting conversations about diversity in that city’s schools.

When asked if he thought there was a benefit to having schools that serve entirely high-needs populations, Smalley said, “there is benefit in clarity around mission. I think there’s benefit in a belief in high expectations for all kids, regardless of race or background.”

“The thing we can 100 percent control right now, and the most urgent need, is the quality of education we are providing,” Smalley said.

In 2010, the University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles released a report called “Choice Without Equity” that showed that charter schools are often more segregated by race than regular public schools. Many charter schools specifically target students from failing schools, who are often minorities and often from low-income families.

But a 2012 report from the same group indicates that segregation in regular public schools has also been increasing, especially in the south.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a Washington think tank, has studied charter school diversity and is publishing an upcoming book with coauthor Halley Potter on the topic. He told Education Week in 2012 that “the charter school community is recognizing that to the extent that it’s seen as segregated, that’s a negative thing.”