Since their creation in the early 1990s, charter schools have come under fire from many civil rights supporters. “Traditional advocates of civil rights claim that charter schools are but another opportunity for whites to escape from the public school system and gain advantage for their children at taxpayers’ expense,” says Tomiko Brown-Nagin, J.D., Ph.D., a legal and social history expert at Washington University in St. Louis.
“This criticism overlooks the astounding fact, however, that most charter schools have been established in poor, minority neighborhoods and are attended disproportionately by poor, minority students — those whose schools and neighborhoods have been untouched by Brown v. Board of Education,” says Brown-Nagin, an associate professor in Washington University’s School of Law and in the Department of History in Arts & Sciences.
A 2003 study conducted by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found that in 2000-2001, minority students accounted for only 41 percent of students in public schools nationwide, but composed 57 percent of the student body at the nation’s charter schools.
The study also found the largest disparity to be among African-Americans, who compose only 17 percent of the student population at the nation’s public schools, but 33 percent of the student body in charter schools.
“This striking fact should inform our views about the nature and purposes of alternative educational spaces such as charter schools,” says Brown-Nagin, author of “Toward a Pragmatic Understanding of Status-Consciousness: The Case of Deregulated Education” in the Duke Law Journal.
“In light of the socio-historical context in which charter schools have developed, it seems that the kind of outright opposition to the movement that has been expressed by so many friends of civil rights is counterintuitive and misguided.”
Brown-Nagin notes that charter schools are not above criticism.
“The disproportionate use of these schools by the truly disadvantaged should inspire policy makers and social activists to redouble their efforts to ensure that these schools are actually helping the students whom they serve,” she adds.