by David Safier
No question, our traditional public schools suffer from racial, ethnic and economic segregation, too often creating separate-but-unequal schools. It's a huge problem. But charter schools promise to make the problem far worse. That's the dirty little secret about the push for charters. The unstated mission of the conservative "education reform"/"school choice" movement is to create publicly funded, good-to-great schools for students coming from middle class to affluent homes while the rest of the student population attends educational holding tanks which teach them basic skills and little else.
The poster children for the new charter-segregation movement are two Arizona chains: BASIS, which began in Tucson, and Great Hearts, which began in the Phoenix area. Both offer education which is on par with many private schools, and both situate themselves in mainly white, mainly affluent enclaves. Both are beginning to expand across the country, duplicating the same demographic patterns.
Let's take a look at the demographics of Arizona's BASIS and Great Hearts charters.
Because some of the BASIS schools are new, I haven't been able to find stats on their student makeup. But the original BASIS Tucson is 55% White, 21% Hispanic, 19% Asian, 4% Black and 2% Native American. The second school BASIS created, BASIS Scottsdale, is 64% white, 33% Asian and 3% Hispanic. Though I don't have a demographic breakdown of the newer schools in the Tucson area, I'm confident the BASIS school in Oro Valley and the most recently opened BASIS Tucson North at River Road and Craycroft do not reflect the ethnic diversity of the Tucson area.
Great Hearts has five schools in the general Phoenix area. Four of them are between 85% and 91% White and Asian. The fifth is 68% Black, 16% Hispanic and 12% White. The four predominantly White and Asian schools have state rankings of "A." Teleos Prep, the predominantly Black and Hispanic school, has a "C" rating.
When you build schools in affluent areas and offer no transportation or free-and-reduced lunches, you create segregated schools. This has been done by design by BASIS and Great Hearts. Recently, Great Hearts wanted to open schools in Nashville, Tennessee, but the local school board refused because the plan was to build the schools in affluent areas. Great Hearts President Jay Heiler emphasized his schools' separate-but-unequal philosophy in his response to the refusal.
"In Tennessee it seems like there was more of a focus of bringing diversity into each school, whereas here we try to serve a diversity of communities."
BASIS opened a charter in Washington, DC, this year. I don't have demographic data on the school, but I know its location is in a nice commercial area near the Capitol Mall, and I also know the DC population has become whiter than it once was, so it's very possible the school draws mainly from an affluent sliver of the city's population. And what better way to convince DC power brokers about the wonders of BASIS Schools than to let them send their kids to a tuition-free school with the ethnic and pedagogical characteristics of a pricey private school?
BASIS and Great Hearts will be opening schools in San Antonio, Texas, next year. They haven't chosen their locations yet. Great Hearts is applying to open a school in Dallas the following year.
BASIS and Great Hearts trumpet their educational successes, but neither has attempted to create a school with a heterogeneous population. Their student populations guarantee a high level of success so long as the curriculum is rigorous and the staff is competent. What they have created is more ways to increase segregation in our taxpayer-funded schools.