Do Newark charter schools worsen segregation? A guide to the debate behind a major court case.

Fourth grader Christophe Afenutsu raises his hand and waits to grab the attention of his teacher Christie Kim at Roseville Community Charter School in April 2021. Recently, the Biden administration has proposed new rules on federal program designed to help launch charter schools.
A case in the New Jersey Supreme Court centers on Newark’s charter schools and whether they worsen school segregation. (Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat)

Two of the most fiercely debated issues in education are charter schools and segregation. So what happens when you tackle both topics at once?

Newark is about to find out. A case currently before the state Supreme Court centers on Newark’s sprawling set of charter schools — which now enroll more than a third of the city’s public school students — and whether they have worsened school segregation.

Segregation is one of several issues in the case, which hinges on the state’s decision in 2016 to allow several charter schools to enroll more students. But during oral arguments last week, segregation quickly emerged as one of the case’s most contentious topics. The court’s ruling on the matter carries extra weight because it could preview the outcome of a separate lawsuit, which challenges school segregation across New Jersey.

The questions at hand are as thorny as they are weighty. What counts as segregation? What role do charter schools play? And who, if anyone, is obligated to fix it?

“This is very complicated,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which brought the lawsuit challenging the state’s approval of Newark’s charter expansion. “But we can’t just throw our hands up and say, ‘It’s always been segregated, so there’s nothing we can do about it.’ Our law doesn’t allow that.”

Here is a breakdown of what we know about Newark schools and segregation, the impact of charter schools, and what the law says.

How segregated are Newark schools?

In a word: very.

The most straightforward way to measure segregation is to compare a school system’s share of Black and Hispanic students with the share of white students. This metric, sometimes called racial isolation, is rooted in research showing that students of color tend to have fewer opportunities (such as access to rigorous classes) and worse academic outcomes when they attend schools with very few white students.

By that measure, Newark’s district and charter schools are both “intensely segregated,” often defined as having fewer than 10% of students who are white. More than 90% of students in both sets of schools are Black or Hispanic, though charter schools overwhelmingly enroll Black students while Newark Public Schools has a more even mix of Black and Hispanic students, according to state data from the 2020-21 school year.

Those systemwide figures obscure even deeper racial isolation at the school level. In a third of Newark Public Schools, 80% to 93% of students are Black, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of the district’s more than 60 schools. In another quarter of schools, 70% to 90% of students are Hispanic.

In more than three quarters of Newark charter schools, 74% to 94% of students are Black. At three other charter schools, about 60% to 94% of students are Hispanic. (The city has 17 charter school organizations, which range in size from one campus to more than a dozen.) 

Another measure, called the exposure index, looks at the racial breakdown of the average student’s schoolmates.

It shows that Newark’s Black charter school students are the most likely group to attend school with students of their own race. The average Black student goes to a charter school where 83% of their peers are Black, compared with 67% in district schools, according to Chalkbeat’s analysis.

“The conversation in Newark with the charter schools is about Black isolation,” said Tomas Monarrez, a research associate at the Urban Institute who has studied school segregation. “I think it’s fair to call it that and to consider that a problem in and of itself.”

Yet another measure of school segregation is called the dissimilarity index. Rather than compare schools to a fixed standard, such as the share of white students, this metric considers how a school system’s particular mix of students is distributed across schools.

The index ranges from 0 (no segregation) to 1 (complete segregation), with values above 0.6 generally considered high levels of segregation. In 2017, the value for Black students across Newark’s traditional and charter schools was 0.67, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia University and MarGrady Research. (That is the average of the values for each grade level.)

One way to interpret that number: 67% of Black students would have to switch schools in order for them to be evenly spread across all schools. Hispanic students are less racially isolated. According to that measure: 58% of Hispanic students would need to change schools in Newark to create an even distribution.

But because those measures only look within the district, they can miss the bigger picture. The starkest segregation in New Jersey, at least between students of color and their white peers, actually occurs from one district to the next.

For example, not far from Newark is the suburban Livingston school district. It’s a fraction of the size of Newark Public Schools, yet it enrolls more white students than Newark’s traditional and charter schools combined.

“District-level segregation is really the core concern in New Jersey,” said Mark Weber, an education policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective. Within the confines of Newark, “we’re talking about an area where you’ve got very little chance of racial integration of white students with Black or Hispanic students.”

Do charter schools exacerbate segregation?

This is a trickier question because it requires disentangling demographic shifts from the role of charter schools.

Newark’s overall population has shifted over the past two decades, becoming less Black and more Hispanic. But those trends were heightened in the district, which could be at least partly due to charter schools.

From 2010 to 2018, the share of Newark children who are Black fell by 6 percentage points while the Hispanic youth population grew by 9 points. But during that same period, the district’s share of Black students dropped by 17 percentage points while its Hispanic enrollment jumped by 17 points. 

Many of the nearly 7,000 Black students who left the district in those years likely enrolled in charter schools, whose enrollment tripled over that period. However, it’s not clear that the traditional schools those students left were much less segregated than the charter schools they entered, or that the enrollment shift left the district more segregated than before.

In fact, another analysis suggests that the spread of charter schools has not increased overall segregation. Looking at Newark’s district and charter schools together, the overall level of segregation basically remained flat from 2012 to 2017, even as charter school enrollment doubled, according to the Columbia University and MarGrady Research analysis.

One other way to answer this question is with a tool called the “segregation contribution index,” which calculates how much each school fuels segregation with its district. Created by the Urban Institute, a social policy think tank, the tool looks specifically at the separation of Black and Hispanic students from white students.

According to that tool, charter schools account for 25% of the segregation within Newark Public Schools.

What about other types of segregation?

Newark students are also separated by ability. 

Overall, the city’s traditional public schools serve more students with special needs. About 18% of Newark Public Schools students are still learning English — nine times the share in the city’s charter schools. And 17% of district students have disabilities, which is 7 percentage points higher than in the charter schools.

Newark’s traditional schools educate more students with disabilities and English language learners than charter schools do. (Jetta Productions / Getty Images)

Some individual charter schools serve larger shares of students with special needs. But English language learners make up less than 2% of the enrollment at the city’s largest charter operators, North Star Academy and KIPP. 

While the district’s overall rates are higher, they vary widely by school. For instance, students with the greatest needs tend to be concentrated in the district’s traditional high schools, while the selective magnet schools serve relatively few students with special needs.

Finally, segregation also happens within schools. In the district, 38% of Black students with disabilities spend most of the school day separated from their non-disabled peers, according to state data from last school year. By contrast, only 15% of white students with disabilities spent that much time in separate classrooms.

What does the law say about school segregation?

New Jersey is rare among states in that its constitution explicitly forbids school segregation. 

In addition, state law says charter schools must seek to enroll “a cross section of the community’s school age population,” including in terms of race. And regulations add that the state education commissioner must monitor each charter school’s enrollment and its “segregative effect” on the local school district.

In a 2004 case appealing the state’s approval of a charter school in Red Bank, the court ruled that the commissioner must balance New Jersey’s “strong policy in favor of non-segregated schools with our policy of fostering the development of effective charter schools.” 

In the current case, the Education Law Center claims the commissioner in 2016 did not properly consider the impact on the Newark school district’s budget or racial balance when he let seven charter schools expand. 

A key question is whether the law forbids segregation in charter schools no matter the cause or only when it’s due to discriminatory enrollment practices. Sciarra, of the Education Law Center, argues that prior court rulings have been “crystal clear” about that issue.

“We don’t have to show that there’s some specific action that the charter schools are engaged in that’s causing the segregation,” he told Chalkbeat. “The court has said, whatever the cause is, segregation has to be addressed.”

But Donna Arons, an assistant state attorney general, argued that the state need only ensure charter schools don’t exclude students — not that they are racially diverse.

“The charter school act itself,” she said at last week’s hearing, “was not designed to ensure racial balance in the schools.”

What do charter critics and proponents say about segregation?

Both sides in the debate have different theories about the role charter schools play in segregation.

The Education Law Center and other critics point out that most Newark charter schools are racially imbalanced and don’t serve a cross section of the community, which the critics define as the entire city. Because charter schools are allowed to draw students from across the city and, in some cases, other municipalities, they have the ability to enroll a more diverse population, critics say.

Most charter schools haven’t done enough to recruit students with disabilities or those still learning English, critics claim. And district officials insist that some families don’t apply to charter schools, or are turned away, because the schools don’t offer certain special education or bilingual programs.

Charter schools are “not addressing the educational needs of Newark’s most vulnerable students,” said district Superintendent Roger León in a letter to the state.

In response to critics, charter schools say they provide whatever services students need. They attribute their very small number of English language learners to their location, arguing that few charter schools operate in parts of the city with the most immigrants and Spanish speakers. 

Advocates also point out that Newark charter schools have started enrolling more students with disabilities. And they note that most charter schools participate in a citywide enrollment system that gives students with special needs a boost in the matching process and prevents schools from excluding them.

Finally, they argue that charter schools must enroll a cross section of children in the neighborhoods where they’re based, not the entire city. They add that many charter schools mainly enroll Black students because the schools sought to locate in areas with the lowest-performing traditional schools — and those tended to be in Black neighborhoods.

“Diversity is important,” said Harry Lee, president and CEO of the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association. “But we also need great schools in every neighborhood — even where integration hasn’t happened yet.”

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