Who Has a Voice in School Choice?

Durham has a 40% white population, however, less than 20% of white children are enrolled in traditional public schools, such as Brogden.  Moreover, a higher percentage of students qualify for free or reduced lunches at more traditional public schools than at charter schools.  As these skewed statistics suggest, school choice may only be providing a “choice” to some students.  Looking specifically at the racial and class disparities between the student bodies at traditional public schools and charter schools, the school choice movement seems to be re-shaping Durham’s educational landscape as well.

While enrollment for charters is determined by a lottery system, many do not provide transportation, excluding low-income students who may otherwise be able to attend.  Jane Stancill, a journalist for The News & Observer found that “the northern part of the city, which has a higher proportion of white residents, who also tend to be more affluent, is a hotbed of charter schools.”  For example, when the large charter school Voyager opened, nearly half of Little River Elementary School’s enrollment dropped within a five-year period. An article in The Washington Post, detailing the growth of charter schools in the DPS system claims, “charters pluck advantaged kids out of the public-school system.” At Brogden, more than 84% of students qualify for free or reduced lunches, compared with less than 20% qualifying at Voyager.

As charter schools divert funding from the school district budget, they may be leaving students enrolled in traditional public schools at an educational disadvantage. Former DPS Superintendent Bert L’Homme stated, “the loss of traditional public-school students to charters has eroded Durham’s per-pupil spending…there’s smaller amount of money overall, while the district has many of the same fixed costs – it must operate all of its schools and provide services to a population with a significant proportion of low-income students.”

Although some charter schools have a greater proportion of more affluent students than traditional public schools, Darrell Allison, the executive director of the pro-school choice group Parents for Educational Freedom, explains that a few charter schools do cater specifically to minority and low-income students.  He states, “a number of families of color, where 70 percent or higher are single-parent… are actively looking for good educational institutions. They are also looking for Afro-American role models, particularly for their Afro-American boys.” Indeed, Maureen Joy Charter School, the oldest charter school in Durham, was created specifically to serve low-income students, providing transportation throughout Durham County. Overall, however, reporters at The News & Observer find that N.C. charter schools are both “richer and whiter.”

While ostensibly a solution to benefit all students in the Durham County school district, the greater concentration of white and higher socio-economic status students in charter schools, eerily reminds me of so-called ‘white flight’ following Brown v Board of Education, which saw white students flock to the Durham County School System, while the Durham City School System became predominantly African-American, until the two merged, in 1992.  As I learned about the racial and classist results of school choice happening right in my own backyard, I became more aware of the additional obstacles the girls at Brogden may be facing.