Charter schools: the new segregation?


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.


  1. Well, it sounds impressive, anyway. They have the requisite “academy” in their school name. What could have gone wrong? I’m sure that Huppenthal is shutting down that school as we speak. 🙂

    The poor quality of educational experiences delivered by many (not all) charter schools in Arizona is largely being ignored and allowed to continue. All public school teachers will tell you that a good number of students who attend charter schools and return to public schools are falling behind when they come to us. We then have to use precious resources to bring them up to grade level. So, charter schools have the luxury of choosing who they will educate, and they still can’t get it right!

    It is good to hear that some in the media are finally addressing this.

  2. Check AllSports Academy.

    “Students are taught to achieve success on the field and then recognize the paradigm used to achieve that success; respect, obedience, focus, hard work, study, practice/repetition, persistance, and a good attitude. Finally, they are taught how to apply that paradigm of success to their academic studies and their everday life.”

    Not working so well. They sport an F rating.

  3. My two cents…

    I am a strong supporter of public education and a public school teacher of 20+ years.

    Public schools should (and most do, in my experience) meet the following criteria:

    *Obtaining a public school education should be as close to “free” as possible.
    *Every single child who walks through the door should be enrolled.
    *The school should strive to provide a high-quality education to every child.
    *Every child’s academic potential should be realized. Related social, emotional, and physical needs should also be met.
    *Staff and resources should be provided that are integral to achieving the previous criteria. Resources may include but are not limited to: certified and highly qualified teachers, reading and math specialists and tutors, gifted teachers, speech and language pathologists, special education teachers, para-professionals, classroom aides, English language learner teachers, registered nurses, school psychologists, vision and hearing specialists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, social workers, nutritional meals, bus drivers, crossing guards and playground aides.
    *Public school students should be expected to meet or exceed predetermined educational standards. If a student falls behind, resources should be provided until the standards are met. If a student exceeds standards, a more rigorous program should be provided. This is required of every student, regardless of needs, in every public school.

    Arizona’s constitution requires a public school system that follows the above model. Our Legislature has added the option of government-subsidized private schools to the above public school model. (Not surprisingly, the more palatable term “charter schools” was created). Corporate and financial bottom-line is the primary focus of many charter schools in our state. The concept of “meeting the needs of every child” is not included in the charter school model. Consequently, providing a high-quality education to children becomes a secondary focus.

    In the public school model, a richly diverse student population (academic, socioeconomic, racial, religious) is a natural by-product and something that should be celebrated and supported with vigor (IMO).

    In the private/charter school model, diversity will be the first thing to go. Segregation and selectivity is inherent (and intended) in keeping the bottom-line focus. Unless the commenters here can say that their charter school attending children have many classmates who require some of the above resources, their children are attending a segregated school.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Harvey. You bring up lots of interesting issues, but a few pop out at me.

    First, it’s true no one can be made to pay fees at charters, so that isn’t really a barrier for less affluent families. But if charters like BASIS need student fees to survive, doesn’t that present a problem for conservatives who say money doesn’t matter in education? Great Hearts charters are very up front about saying they can’t give students the kind of education they need on state funding. BASIS is indicating the same thing by charging fees. And the fact that parents with children at a charter in, say, South Tucson, couldn’t afford the extra fees means they would have less spent on their education than more affluent parents. More money buys better education, these schools are saying, and the schools with more money are educating students who already have all the advantages.

    The second thing I hear is that BASIS really isn’t offering a superior school based on its model. It’s simply doing a good job with the highly motivated students who attend. TUSD’s University High creates a similarly high quality education with similar students. So really, what BASIS does is provide more options for privileged students in affluent areas. While that’s wonderful for those students, it furthers the segregation of schools and also furthers the achievement gap between the educational haves and have nots. Like the growing income disparity/inequity our society has seen in recent decades, these charters help further the educational disparity/inequity in our society.

  5. I have many problems with BASIS (I work there). However, since the model starts only in 5th grade at the moment and is extremely accelerated, the simple fact is that not many kids from low SES families are going to survive, even with extensive tutoring / academic support which, to be fair, BASIS attempts to provide.

    You mention additional fees as a barrier and this would be a serious issue. But my understanding was that all “essential fees” are waived for low SES families at charters. Yes a kid might not be able to do certain extracurriculars, or may have to overcome transportation difficulties, but I don’t think kids can never be turned away for not paying fees,

    To be sure, BASIS marketers tout themselves as the answer to all that ails our educational system, but that is what marketers do! In actuality there is simply not a market for BASIS south of speedway. I don’t see that as a problem, however, because that is where other charters can arise to take tackle the specific problems confronted by low SES communities (e.g., establishing self-respect and confidence and basic literacy and numeracy before reading shakespeare).

    The BASIS DC experiment will be interesting to follow, as it appears to bring the BASIS education to a predominantly low SES community. I don’t know enough about the details, but from what I can gather they will not be able to attract high SES families no matter what part of DC they are located.

    To me the major problem with BASIS is the profit being reaped by the absentee owners and their growing band of insider administrators and yet teacher salaries are frozen, parents are squeezed for tons of extra revenue, class sizes are increased, text books are not provided, etc. But that is another blog post!

  6. But isn’t that precisely the point David is making? What we are seeing is not racial segregation, but economic segregation, and charter schools are exacerbating that problem. My kids attend a charter school as well. They’re doing great there. But kids from families of more modest means just couldn’t go there. The fees over and above what the school receives from the state would be a barrier for many families.

  7. The bottom line is this: Public schools in Arizona are failing. Parents are moving to charter schools to provide better education and opportunities for their children. My child came home with a gash in his head because another child hit him on the head with a seat belt buckle on the bus. The school did nothing to discipline the student even though the bus driver filed a report. My boys both complained about the constant bullying going on in the school. At the charter school, we saw a child being bullied after school. One call to the school office saw immediate action. My kids are learning more, are happier at school and are excelling. When we looked at the charter schools, there was a good racial mix at the 3 schools we reviewed.

    Also important to note: I see several children of teachers from my kids’ public school now attending the charter school. That should tell you about the problems in the public schools.

  8. I think it’s pretty clear from what I wrote that I was speaking of the religious differences among the students as an additional layer of diversity, on top of the ethnic and economic diversity that was the primary goal.

    And as I’m sure you know, people from other parts of town do have similar educational options. The foothills schools have open enrollment (which we utilized), Catholic schools give financial aid (that’s why they have the diversity that we appreciated so much) and Basis is free. Yes, if you don’t have transportation you’d need something closer… but now it sounds like you’re saying that Basis is such a good thing we should have them all over, which isn’t quite the takeaway I got from your original post.

    Anyway, I think you understand my main point. Basis does have a diverse student population, and for us that was a big part of the draw. To say that there’s some kind of devious plot underfoot to segregate kids doesn’t match up with our experience at all.

    Thanks for the discussion, I’ve enjoyed it.

  9. You make a very reasonable point. But it’s all from the perspective of someone who is from a family with, I’m guessing, parents with a reasonably high educational level and a reasonably comfortable income.

    Imagine for a moment you’re not from that world, that you’re a parent who lives in a low income neighborhood and you don’t have a great deal of education, but you want better for your kids. You see some people up in the “rich part of town” describing diversity as “Jews and Mormons and kids from other religious backgrounds.” You realize these people have all kinds of options for quality schooling — Foothills public schools, Catholic schools, BASIS — and your kids’ educational opportunities aren’t at nearly the same level, meaning their chances of competing for good paying jobs are pretty slim. If I was that parent from that family, I would be feeling very angry right about now listening to “diversity” being narrowed down to such a small part of the population.

    And this is the problem that concerns me. Charters like BASIS can widen the options for a certain demographic while they leave the rest of the population out. I don’t blame any parent for choosing BASIS — I would recommend it to a parent who has a child who would be a good fit for the school — but if you look at the larger societal picture, when those kinds of targeted charters proliferate, they widen the divide between the educational Haves and Have-nots.

  10. I’m going to suggest that you try looking at it from another angle. I live in the foothills. I wanted to send my daughter to a school with strong academics and ethnic diversity. I was spending a lot of money to send her to a Catholic school in a different part of town, but the academic rigor wasn’t there. I signed her up for a nearby public school, but I was concerned that it wouldn’t have the diversity that she was used to and that we really valued. Then Basis opened up – the best of both worlds. Happily, there’s even more diversity than at the Catholic school because now she’s going to school with Jews and Mormons and kids from other religious backgrounds as well. From my perspective, Basis brought us a highly diverse option we didn’t have before, and we’re very appreciative of that.

    You want to compare the population to that of the first Basis school, and that’s fine as far as it goes… but shouldn’t you also be comparing it to the schools the kids would otherwise be going to? And if it’s more diverse than they are (admittedly now I’m the one making assumptions), how can that be considered segregation “by design”?

    There are plenty of things to question and criticize about charter schools, and even Basis in particular, but I think you’re off the mark here.

  11. Teresa, I would be very interested in seeing a breakdown of the ethnic diversity at BASIS North. You’re absolutely right, my statement “I’m confident that” was a preface to an opinion I believe to be true, not a statement of fact. I had stated earlier that the schools are too new for me to find the data I was looking for.

    Look at the percentages I posted for the original BASIS Tucson, which has a far more diverse student body than the Scottsdale branch. Does the River/Craycroft school have the same or greater diversity? While you’re checking, it would be wonderful if you could also find out the percentage of students whose economic situation would qualify them for free or reduced lunch, which is a good proxy for economic diversity.

  12. I’m noticing that wherever you say, “I’m confident that” you could easily substitute the words, “I have no facts but I’m going to assert anyway that”… My daughter goes to the new Basis Tucson North school. I just attended their Honors Assembly and I was very pleased to see how well minorities were represented among the students – including my daughter, btw. Basis emphasized their schools’ ethnic diversity at all the information sessions I attended. Hardly a tactic you’d expect them to employ if they were trying to encourage or capitalize on “white flight.”

  13. All of their schools are more diverse than north Scottsdale schools. And, you can get into their schools if you are a low income minority. thats not true of north scottsdale schools.

  14. Because we believe in equal opportunity and because we recognize that the distribution of talented children in our society is entirely random. If we educate children based on how educated and how affluent their parents are, society loses, because the very talented children of very poor people never reach their full potential.

    Instead of adhering to rigid ideology (and, of all ideologies, the libertarian ideology certainly wins first place for rigidity) try exploring the views of others. You might pick up Chris Hayes’ recent book, Twilight of the Elites… or the Bill Bradley’s book from five or six years ago, The New American Story. Both of those books will shed some light on this subject. Or, you can continue to live and think within the strict confines of libertarian doctrine, and never, ever grow intellectually. The choice is yours. I’m not saying that all Libertarian philosophy is baseless. I actually have a lot of respect for the Libertarian view. My sister was the Libertarian Vice Presidential candidate in 1992 (look it up if you don’t believe me). But policy making is far more complicated than adhering to a few narrow principles. You’re taking the easy way out.

  15. In the end the question to be asked is “Which should be the highest priority, parent’s choice in order to obtain the best education for their children or the pursuit of social engineering via the government school system?” As best I can observe the vast marjority of parents prefer to look after the interests of their children rather than the pursuit of an racially integrated school system. Why should government demand that parent’s sacrifice the education of their children to the never-ending pursuit of the social engineers?