EdWize’s Racial Libel

September 28, 2009

Race Card w watermark

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

On EdWize, Jonathan Gyurko finds himself forced to acknowledge that Caroline Hoxby’s recent blockbuster study is good news for charter schools. He then starts desperately groping for any excuse he can find to neutralize the good news.

Most of his claims will be familiar to those who have seen the teachers’ unions try to spin away gold-standard empirical evidence that their positions are wrong. We’ve read all these cue cards before.

But one of his claims deserves more attention. Like many before him, Gyurko tries his hand at racial demagoguery to make parental choice seem like a scary throwback to Jim Crow:

Such a dramatically-presented conclusion is sure to feature prominently in charter advocates’ efforts to expand the number of charter schools across the city and state. And if it’s true, then why shouldn’t we? The answer actually depends on how policymakers weigh the goal of improved student achievement against other worthy goals, such as greater educational equity and meaningful diversity. And on these other objectives, nagging questions dog the charter sector.

For example, Hoxby finds that 92 percent of charter students are black or Hispanic, compared to 72 percent in district schools and concludes that “the existence of charter schools in the city therefore leaves the traditional public schools less black, more white, and more Asian.” Such racial segregation is consistent with research on charter schools in other states including North Carolina, Texas and elsewhere.

Although this statistic is likely to be a function of charter schools’ location in largely black and Hispanic neighborhoods, Hoxby also reports that fewer white students are applying to the charters; although 14 percent of residents in the charter school neighborhoods are white non-Hispanic, only 4 percent are applying.

There are two claims made here:

1) If the citywide aggregate population of all charter school students is more heavily minority than the citywide aggregate population of district school students, charters must be increasing segregation.

2) If charter school applicants who live near the charter schools are disproportionately minority, charters must be increasing segregation.

Both claims are transparently bogus.

On the first claim: citywide aggregate figures tell us nothing whatsoever about the impact charters are having on segregation, for the simple reason that citywide aggregate figures can tell us nothing whatsoever about segregation in any context, even aside from the whole charter question.

Imagine for a moment that New York is made up of 50% green children and 50% purple children. Let’s look at two scenarios:

Perfect segregation scenrio: All the green children go to fully segregated schools made up exclusively of green children, and all the purple children go to fully segregated schools made up exclusively of purple children.

Perfect integration scenario: All children attend perfectly integrated schools made up of half green children and half purple children.

Now, let’s take a look at the citywide aggregate figures we would get under these two scenarios.

Perfect segregation scenario: Citywide aggregate 50% green, 50% purple.

Perfect integration scenario: Citywide aggregate 50% green, 50% purple.

You see? Aggregate figures are intrinsically incapable of providing any information about school segregation. To find out whether schools are segregated, you must look at the individual schools.

Let’s apply that principle to the real world. Hoxby finds that the citywide aggregate population of district school students is 72% minority. But does that mean every individual school is 72% minority? Of course not. You could very well have all the white children going to perfectly segregated exclusively all-white schools, all the black children to perfectly segregated exclusively all-black schools, all the Hispanic children going to perfectly segregated exclusively all-Hispanic schools, etc., and the citywide aggregate figure would remain unchanged.

And, in fact, the reality on the ground is a lot closer to that dystopian hypothetical than it is to the utopian scenario of ideal racial balance. But Gyurko’s argument relies on the unspoken assumption that the reality on the ground in district schools is utopian.

Meanwhile, the citywide aggregate for charter schools is 92%. As with district schools, the aggregate figure tells us nothing about the actual racial balance in any individual school. Supposing for a moment that New York’s district schools are very heavily segregated – which they are – it is quite possible that the actual charter schools on the ground are better integrated than the district schools even though their aggregate population figure is disproportionately minority.

And, in fact, given that the primary cause of school segregation is housing segregation, the fact that charters can break down neighborhood barriers and draw students from other neighborhoods with different demographics makes it highly likely that they are, in fact, better integrated. That’s the reality in voucher programs, where the empirical evidence unanimously shows parent choice improves integration.

But at any rate, the data to which Gyurko appeals don’t tell us either way.

Once the essential sham behind the first claim is exposed, the second claim is much easier to refute. What counts is not how the local applicant pool differs from the local resident population, but how the final makeup of each charter school differs from the final makeup of each district school. Once the process of parents making choices is completed, are the individual charter schools more segregated? This datum tells us nothing about that.

Ironically, Gyurko’s argument on this second claim really implies that he wants charter schools to represent the racial balance of their local neighborhoods. That would imply endless racial segregation, given that neighborhoods are so racially homogeneous. Any serious attempt to break down racial segregation in schools must begin by acknowledging that schools representing their neighborhoods is the problem.

That’s why hyper-arrogant courts forced us to go through the disastrous failed experiment with forced busing. That was a terrible idea, just like anything that robs parents of their freedom. But at least those tyrannical judges understood the source of the problem correctly.

If parents want to send their children to their local neighborhood schools, they should be allowed. But anything we do that forces them to send their children to school locally is – among so many other evils – going to increase racial segregation. Assigning students to schools by ZIP code is not only educationally bankrupt, it’s racially poisonous.