The Data is In: White Flight is Real

I like to consider myself a “Reformed Blogger.” For five years, I authored and managed an interesting little slice of the Delaware blogosphere called Down with Absolutes! When I closed up shop in July 2009, my site had attracted more than 1.2 million hits, a fair amount of local media coverage, and a bizarre fascination of my site by the IP addresses located in Legislative Hall.

Not satisfied with how my professional life had been advancing — and realizing the site had been a liability to me for some time — I decided to move on. I got my teaching job and found a new life as a very active member of my union. I cherish both my job working with special needs students as well as my role as president of the Red Clay Education Association.

But sometimes I have the itch. The itch to whip out that old-style pugnacious Mike Matthews filled with a passion and muted rage that has been missing for so long. And today is one of those days.

Data. We bow down to the data gods in this state. Our Department of Education — under the leadership of Gov. Jack Markell — has an almost bizarrely fetishistic preoccupation with data. Data! Data! Data! We are data-driven! Our data drives our instruction! Data coaches! Data Day! Now, let me be the first to say I do love me some data. Teachers love data. They’ve been using it since time immemorial to drive the instruction in their classroom. However, this continued shoving of data talking points down our throats is not changing the fact that our schools are under-resourced and for too many, schools are filling the widening gaps caused by troubled home lives.

But back to the data. Boy…do we have some data today!! The information is a little buried on the state Department of Education’s website, but it’s there if you search hard enough. First…some background. Newark Charter School is a charter school geographically located in the Christina School District. It’s a charter school in a school district with 60% low-income students. However, because of the school’s bizarre “five-mile radius” requirement (a large part of which is actually in Maryland), a good portion of low-income students in Christina are not eligible to attend: namely those poor city kids who’d have to be bussed out to such a far away school! Nevermind that those kids are already bussed to far-away schools Glasgow, Christiana, and Newark High Schools!

Last year, Newark Charter School — which had been a K-8 school — sought and was granted a modification to its charter. The school will now be K-12, with the 9th grade being the first to be phased in this year, the 2013-14 school year. When this was reported, all sorts of activists who are engaged on the issue of public education cried foul. They claimed this would draw students from the Christina School District who were perhaps more affluent. Resources would be taken from the traditional schools and put in Newark Charter. They claimed the high school most impacted — Newark High School — would see a great decline in white students.

Well, folks, we got the data. And it jibes pretty completely with what was said months ago. Last year, the percentage of white students entering Newark High School’s 9th grade class was 44%. This year, that number plummeted to 30%. Meanwhile, over at Newark Charter School, their 9th grade class is a whopping 69% white. Wow. That’s all I can say. A shift that dramatic could never be attributed to some off-year statistical anomaly. This is white flight, plain and simple. Wow. Wow. Wow.

I’m guessing a good portion of those students would have gone to Newark High School. However, as my good friend and blogger Pandora often says, why would you turn down what is, essentially, a free, “exclusive” private school education at a place like Newark Charter School?

This is all very planned. This is all very rehearsed. I’m going to break it to you: We continue to praise some of these high-performing charter schools as if there’s some magic going on inside them. No doubt, they are fine schools. However, they’re rigging the system. As we’re finding out as we delve deeper into the HB 90: Enrollment Preferences Task Force (and, to a lesser degree, the SB 147: District/Charter Collaboration Task Force), the schools have amazingly complex — and legally questionable — applications and enrollment practices that specifically allow them to exclude large portions of mostly minority and low-income students. In particular, at last week’s HB 90 meeting, emotions became flared by some representing charter schools when one state representative brilliantly went down a list of some of the most bizarre charter school application questions in Delaware.

I don’t know about you, but charter schools should be a representation of the school districts in which they’re located. A school like Charter School of Wilmington is located in Red Clay, a district with 50% low income students. However, CSW has a measly 1.6% low-income students. Newark Charter, in a district with 60% low-income, is only 13.5%. These charter schools are not representative of the districts in which they reside.

The data is in: White flight is real. Except this time, people aren’t fleeing the cities and moving to the suburbs. They’re pulling Johnny and Jane from their traditional neighborhood school for a bit of exclusivity. High-performing charter schools: They’re the new country clubs.

Now, whenever I have this discussion with someone who is a fan of charters, I always seem to have to qualify my words with this: I have no problem with charters. Charters can be a good thing when done properly and with the careful consideration of the overall education landscape. Hell, it was brought up in our SB 147 task force yesterday that even the ed-reformy BS’ers at the Gates Foundation say good charter school systems MUST be representative of the population as a whole. Low-income. ELL. Special education. The problem is that for too long, Delaware’s charter school laws have allowed these schools too much flexibility to game the system and advance their discriminatory admissions practices. The highest-performing charter schools are that way because they have exclusive means of accepting students. The mediocre charter schools are no better than the “average” traditional public schools. The really struggling charter schools lack either vision or financial/governance oversight and/or serve the same challenging student base that have left many traditional schools BEGGING for more resources for years.

All I’ve asked in years’ past was for this offensive comparison to stop. It is wrong to compare charters to traditionals when traditionals must take everyone. It is wrong to compare charters to traditionals when the charters can create applications and admissions systems that specifically exclude certain populations of students based on geography or test scores which then, by default, exclude certain socioeconomic groups. It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Build all the charter schools you want. But the playing field needs to be even. Sadly, we had the potential to see some REAL charter school updates this past legislative session, but one Really Bad Bill drove the narrative and we’re simply left with More of the Same.

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17 comments on “The Data is In: White Flight is Real

  1. pandora says:

    I’m shocked – shocked, I tell you. Whocouldofknown?

  2. Vicki Seifred says:

    thank you Mike…….you “nailed” it…..and do I have stories to tell!!

  3. Eve Buckley says:

    Thanks for picking up this important thread, Mike. Two quick clarifications. I think it’s impt. to emphasize that the five-mile radius only explains a portion of the NCS filter. Even looking at demographics within its radius, the school is significantly underenrolling low-income and minority students. I wish DOE cared enough to try and understand why this is happening (my hypothesis has been the school’s long neglect of nutritional assistance for low-income kids, but there may well be other factors at play).

    Second, you are a bit harsh on country clubs. At least most of them were private, no? We all PAY for this discrimination, with tax dollars. That adds insult to injury. I’d be delighted if NCS were a mere country club, doing its own thing off in the NW corner of the state. That would make it a private school, which is not as harmful to the public system as an effectively private charter.

  4. John Young says:

    for Pandora:

  5. Jack says:

    Is this any different than Cab or Conrad who have over 600 out of district students and % of low income is far less than AI, McKean and Dockinson.

  6. My daughter attends Providence Creek Academy (charter) and they take in whoever applies. Still, there are less students from lower socioeconomic groups because less of those parents are likely to be involved enough with their child’s education to make the additional effort to apply. Should I feel guilty about ‘white flight’ because I want my daughter surrounded by people who value education? Should I remove her from advanced classes if they happen to have a lower percentage of minorities? How much should a parent handicap their child while waiting for others who may not be willing to make the effort?

  7. Thanks for the comment, Anthony.

    I will take issue with one of your statements, this being that there are those who don’t “value” education. As a teacher, I hear this quite often and, having worked in a high-needs school, can see first-hand that all parents I talk to — no matter how distressing their home life or how disruptive their child — DOES value education. They really, really do. It’s just they often don’t know how to access the tools they need to help their child succeed.

    So please rethink the whole “they-don’t-value-education” meme. It’s overplayed and simply not true.

  8. Thanks for those clarifying points, Eve. Re: NCS five-mile radius, that’s oh-so true!

  9. Eve Buckley says:

    Good questions, Anthony. I don’t know anything about Providence Creek. What I would want to know about any charter that is significantly underenrolling poor or minority kids (and again, maybe that’s not true of PC–what does one consider “significant,” for starters?) is whether the school does its best to accommodate the needs of those students at least on par with what district schools do. So as a simple example, in Newark there are two charters. One has offered federally subsidized b’fast and lunch since the day it opened; the other offered neither for 10 yrs., then began providing daily lunch last yr, after big public outcry. That school (Newark Charter) is the one with a fraction of the low-income and minority students that one would expect, based on student demographics in its enrollment area. The other is a bilingual schl, specifically catering to Hispanic kids, and is higher than expected low-income, for its area. But it wouldn’t be if it didn’t offer the meals, since that would have posed a barrier to attendance for many of its students. It’s those kinds of structural barriers that our DOE should be much more vigilant about. Are publicly funded schls making it difficult for poor children to attend, and effectively keeping them out that way? That’s obviously a different issue from parent disinterest in the schools’ offerings (or at least, I think it is).
    Again, this isn’t an issue at all DE charters. Our state is very permissive–the schls can decide how accommodating they want to be, to various categories of students.

  10. Jack says:

    I wonder what would happen if transportation was provided for choice whether TPS or charter.

  11. Jack says:

    What is the difference between NCS, CAB and Conrad

  12. girly87 says:

    Good points. However, you didn’t have to venture outside of Red Clay, nor did you have to use a charter school as an example to illustrate this. Choice in Red Clay did this the day they reopened Brandywine Springs and then made the disparity even worse when North Star opened. Warner Elementary, which at one point had 1,000 students, many of them from affluent neighborhoods in Hockessin, now has an over 90% poverty rate and only 550 students. Wonder what’s going to happen when the Buzzy Cooke school opens?

    And I personally know too many wonderful minority kids from not-so affluent neighborhoods that have not made it into Conrad, the new secondary school white-haven.

  13. Joanne Christian says:

    Mr Matthews–If I knew how to repost my comments from Kilroy’s to here–I would. But you and I align all over this issue, and glad to see you addressing it here.

  14. delacrat says:

    Educational Jim Crow

  15. 4equity2 says:

    No doubt that NCS is in that very location. practically smacking the state line, it eliminates much of the Bear/ Route 40 area as well.

  16. Christine says:

    Thanks for speaking out Mike, wonder how is it that charter schools engage in exclusionary practices, when public schools must abide by the Neighborhood Schools Act?? It is mindboggling that charters can openly deny neighborhood students, and still operate within the law, or are they exempt?

    Spot-on to your response to the meme that low SES families don’t value education, that falsehood captures the heart of the vast divide in schools today. All families want what’s best for their children. It’s the “Them versus Us!” attitude which will continue to grow and take hold, if we don’t find a feasible way to re-integrate all our students.

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