Ethnic Segregation in Arizona Charter Schools: Maybe Not?

Steve Symmes

My original charge was a simple review of an article from the Educational Policy Analysis Archives: Ethnic Segregation in Arizona Charter Schools. However, the more I read and researched the premises surrounding the authors' research, the more the project took on a life of its own. The deeper I delved into the subject of ethnic bias and charter schools--also known as alternative, independent, magnet, accelerated, Montessori schools, etc.--the more questions were created about charter schools themselves. It quickly became clear to me that all that I really knew about charter schools could fit on the head of a pin and not interfere with any angels that might be dancing there. Just what is a "charter school" and why is time and energy being devoted to researching them?

The five Ws investigative techniques--who? what? when? where? why?--will give the reader a thumbnail sketch of this educational phenomenon.

Who? Charter schools are "designed and operated by educators, parents, community leaders, educational entrepreneurs, and others. They are sponsored by designated local or state educational organizations who monitor their quality and integrity..."(1).

What? Charter schools are public schools; "They are funded according to enrollment (also called average daily attendance, or ADA)," and, unlike their opposite numbers in the traditional public school district, charter schools do not receive any local or state monies for acquiring or building a facility. Recent federal legislation, however, has allocated funds to cover the costs associated with getting a building in which to establish a charter school.

When? "Since 1988, 16 states have passed 'school choice' laws granting students permission to attend schools beyond the geographic borders of their local school districts tuition free. More than 4,000 'magnet' schools allow students to select schools with special teaching or curriculum themes within their school systems. And six years after the first charter school opened in Minnesota, there are nearly 800 such independent public schools educating more than 165,000 students in 23 states and the District of Columbia"(2).

Where? "Charter schools are up and running in 27 states and the District of Columbia, serving over 300,000 students"(3).

Why? Charter schools exist because they are able "to operate freed from the traditional bureaucratic and regulatory red tape that hogties public schools. Freed from such micro management, charter schools design and deliver programs tailored to educational excellence and community needs. Because they are schools of choice, they are held to the highest level of accountability--consumer demand." Also, they "provide opportunity for better child-centered education. They provide the chance for communities to create the greatest range of educational choices for their children. Operators have the opportunity and the incentive to create schools that provide new and better services to students. And charters, bound only by the high standards they have set for themselves, inspire the rest of the system to work harder and be more responsive to the needs of the children"(4).

That charter schools have had a positive impact on the education of America's youth, teacher attitudes, and parental satisfaction is well-documented. Data from surveys report that both parents and students are "largely satisfied with charter schools." Students feel that they receive more individual attention from their teachers and that these same teachers "put more effort into helping them than teachers in their previous schools." The researchers questioned fifty-one parents and found that forty-five of them said that "the school is working for their child, as evidenced by the child's interest in and enthusiasm for school, as well as observed social and academic growth." In the charter school examined, both administration personnel and teachers seem very satisfied with their jobs, in spite of the fact that they put in an average of ten hours a day and seventy to eighty-hour workweeks, respectively. The researchers felt that "satisfaction is an outgrowth of two characteristics unique to charter schools: the opportunity for self-governance, and the act of formulating a mission-based charter, which requires reflection and deliberation on essential components of schooling"(5).

Charter schools have their share of critics also. The nay-sayers claim that charter schools:

This final criticism was the focus of the article. The authors claim that charter schools in the Maricopa county area of Arizona (metropolitan Phoenix) engage in enrollment discrimination based on a student's ethnic origins.

The review of the article follows, with a running commentary contained in the body of the review. Unless otherwise noted, citations are from the article quoting the authors.

Ethnic Segregation in Arizona Charter Schools.
Casey D. Cobb and Gene V. Glass
Educational Policy Analysis Archives, Vol. 7, No. 1
Ed. Gene V. Glass
<> January 14, 1999
ISSN 1068-2341.


According to the authors, school choice continues to be one of the most talked about educational issues in America. It seems that everyone has an opinion on the subject; the debate includes everyone from those who home school, those who send their children to private/parochial schools, to those presidential candidates who extol the need for parental choice with respect to their children's education. There are many choice programs under discussion in America: vouchers, charter schools, open enrollment, and tuition tax credits. Charter schools are enjoying broad public and governmental approbation. Hence, since June 1998, 32 states have enacted the appropriate legislation to publically fund them.

There are criticisms of school choice programs, with charter schools taking their share of hits. The possibilities for stratification along racial, socioeconomic, and other class-based lines are a potent criticism of these programs. Some have opined that White, privileged students will be "skimmed" from the public school system and enrolled in ethnically concentrated charter schools. Supporters decry this assertion by claiming that there is a corresponding or higher percentage of minority students enrolled in charter schools than presently exists in the traditional public school systems. Objectors to charters point out that common sense states that parents will tend to enroll their children in schools which serve children from comparable economic status and social class.

The Arizona study examines two questions regarding ethnic stratification: 1) does data support the assertion that charter schools are "skimming" White students? and 2) are the charter schools in Arizona more ethnically concentrated than the traditional public schools in the state?


The literature cited seems to support the assertion that charter schools are not solely consisting of "an elite population of upper-middle-class white students, as some had feared. Indeed, many charter schools have been designed explicitly to serve at-risk students...[and] serve a more underprivileged student population than regular public schools do" (Buechler, 1996, pp. 26-27). Empirical research by U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement (1997); the Clayton Foundation, at the behest of the Colorado Department of Education (1997), and the Southwest Regional Laboratory in California (1995) reported similar findings. The authors were able to cite only one study, that of Texas charter schools, which purported to provide evidence of ethnic clustering (Taebel et al., 1997).

The section titled Exclusionary Admissions Practices examines data from the Colorado, U.S. Department of Education, and Texas studies. This section discusses the premise that selective admissions policies might be a contributory factor to racial imbalances among schools. Save for one of the 24 schools in present study, each used a random enrollment process: either a lottery or first-come-first-served. The other school targeted gifted and talented students, with the first 100 seats reserved for students of specific race and gender--based on district percentages--on the previously mentioned first-come-first-served random selection process. The authors cite the Colorado study stating that "[t]he Colorado Department of Education (Fitzgerald et al., 1998) found no evidence, at least 'on the surface,' of exclusionary practices." They remark that in the U.S. Department of Education (1997) study, "the evaluators did not find evidence of explicit discriminatory admissions practices." They remarked in an endnote:

More subtle processes of selecting students, however, may be at work. Intensive field research in subsequent years should allow us to probe deeper into selection processes. For example, we will want to ask...whether charter schools actively seek out students from diverse ethnic or racial backgrounds. The research team documented several cases where the schools do reach out actively, but we cannot report definitive data at this time. (U.S. Department of Education, 1997, p.47). [emphasis added]

The authors then cite the Texas charter school study done by Taebel et al., saying that of the seventeen examined, nine "exhibited acute cases of racial distinctiveness." Cobb and Glass further state that the evaluators of the Texas study felt that the imbalance was due to four factors, however, these authors only mention two: first-come-first-served admissions policy and word-of-mouth marketing.


While reading the Related Literature section of this article, I felt directed toward the conclusion that charter schools are inherently racist and the promise that this would be proven to me in later sections of the article. This type of writing, that is, the subtle--or not so subtle?--"pushing" of the reader toward a certain side of an argument was disturbing to me. Presenting data and associated citations through skillful, crafted writing does not make the data true. At this juncture of the article I found myself seriously questioning the authors' biases. Did they have a null hypothesis or were they seeking support for some preconceived belief that charter schools discriminated against minorities and they sought only to serve the elite, White majority? My suspicions were such that I checked the authors' sources; I found the following citation on the World Wide Web at <>:

Although the overall enrollment pattern of the 17 open-enrollment charter schools shows that they are not skimming off a large Anglo student population but rather serving a large minority population, school-by-school analysis reveals an ethnic clustering similar to the traditional school system that is masked when aggregate data are examined. An important contributing factor to this clustering is the State Board of Education's approval of charter applications limiting a school's service area to a particular geographic region. As is true of many Texas school districts and campuses, to the extent the service area is predominantly one-race, the schools also will be predominantly one-race....

A combination of four factors contributes to imbalanced enrollments among the 17 charter schools: (1) a first-come, first-served admissions policy, (2) the designation of catchment areas discussed above, (3) limited marketing funds, and (4) the fact that most parents (among those interviewed for the evaluation study) learned about charter schools by word of mouth from friends or relatives. How parents and students learn of the charter school is of particular concern. Over-reliance on word of mouth advertising for student recruitment means that those who apply first may be racially and socioeconomically similar to the existing student body. To ensure that charter schools do not exclude students on the basis of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, schools could publicize aggressively their existence and select students randomly from a pool of applicants, rather than taking those at the top of a waiting list. Unless such outreach efforts are made, charter school enrollment could replicate the same race and class concentration evident in many segments of the traditional public school system.

It seems to me that the fact that charter schools--in Texas at least--have limited marketing funds and have designated catchment areas should have been mentioned in the article. This data casts serious doubt on any claims that charter schools are engaged in a conspiracy to skim students or insure that their school is of a specific ethnicity. Charter schools are no different from the traditional public schools in that they attract students from the surrounding neighborhoods in which they are built. There is nothing sinister in the fact that if one establishes a charter school in a predominantly Hispanic area of town, the number of Hispanic students is bound to be higher; the same would be true in an Afro-American, White, or whatever racial adjective one would want to use.


According to the authors there is a "dearth of empirical studies that address charter schools and ethnic stratification,...[so] the literature review was broadened to include studies on school choice and social stratification." They cite studies in the United Kingdom (1 & 2), Milwaukee (3), New Zealand and New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago (4) where the authors of these studies came to the conclusions that

  1. few parents emphasized educational considerations, [but rather] their main reasons for choosing a school were based on social factors, such as school climate and general reputation, as well as with practical issues, such as proximity.

  2. parental choice did not lead to a "truly diversified system."

  3. [a]lthough the most emphasized criteria for selecting a school was perceived educational quality, 75% of the parents considered the "other children in chosen school" to be an important or very important factor in their decision.

  4. minority students and students from low-income families were under represented by choice schools with selective admissions policies."


There is a distinct difference between the concepts of "ethnic" and "social" stratification. While society might use these two terms interchangeably, in reality they are not subject to transposition. The dictionary defines the word ethnic as "pertaining to or characteristic of a people, esp. a group sharing a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like"(7), while social is defined as "of or pertaining to society; relating to men living in society, or to the public as an aggregate body." Thus, ethnic stratification can only refer to the action of arranging people based on race, religion, language, or culture or other factors/qualitites that might be considered "inherent"(8). Social stratification, on the other hand, would refer to arranging people based on their standing within a particular society based on such criteria as income, profession, education and so on. Therefore, any member of a society--regardless of her/his ethnic background--can be "stratified" based on any set of predetermined descriptors. For example, within the economic class "upper middle" one can find people of different ethnic backgrounds. If the identifier were native language, there will be English-speakers, Spanish-speakers, Italian-speakers, Slavic-speakers and others. In ethnic stratification, neither economic class, one's profession, nor the amount of education is a factor in determining one's ethnicity. Yes, it is true that pundits and politicians make social and political hay by claiming that certain social strata are composed of inordinate numbers of certain ethnic groups. However, that does not change the fact that ethnic stratification and social stratification--by definition--should be considered to operate within mutually exclusive environments. Any attempts by the authors to equate or correlate ethnic stratification with social stratification are disingenuous at the very least. It is disturbing to think that this section seems to have been "added" to sway the reader toward a specific set of opinions regarding charter schools and their ilk.


The Arizona Department of Education (ADE) School Finance Division supplied enrollment data disaggregated by race and ethnicity, gender, and grade level for all public elementary and secondary schools for the years 1994-1997. The same data was collected for charter schools for the years 1995-1997 from the department and these two sets of data comprise the entire body of data collected for the study. The authors' attempts to contact the 250 schools listed by the ADE as "charter schools" showed that, in reality, there were at most 215 operating in the state at the time. According to the authors, this discrepancy was due to the fact that "[c]harter schools open and close during the year, and do not necessarily open in the year that they are granted, thus making it difficult to maintain exact numbers of operating charters." The researchers used the following in this study:


A series of comparisons between charter and public schools provided the core analysis of this study. The schools were located in metropolitan and rural areas of Arizona. It was noted that three-fourths of the population of the entire state of Arizona is located in Phoenix and Tucson as that "[i]n the interest of time, and considering that metropolitan Phoenix is over three times as populated as Tucson and is home to far more charter schools, Tucson was excluded from the analysis." Also, for the authors "[t]he crucial question is not what percents [sic] of ethnic groups either are or are not in charter schools; rather, the crucial question is how are ethnic groups distributed between propinquitous charter and traditional public schools." The investigators found that none of the commonly used measures of level of segregation--dissimilarity index, Gini coefficient, Lorenzo Curve--worked because of the small numbers of students enrolled in charter schools. It was the authors' belief that "[n]o statistical technique can aptly discern differences among urban schools as completely as maps."


If the inability to apply statistical measurements was due to "the small numbers of students enrolled," then why exclude the charter schools located in Tucson, with a population of 790,755, from the study?(9) Can any attempt to paint an accurate picture of the charter school situation in the state of Arizona be done when Tucson is excluded from the study?

Also, the fact that "the magnitude of differences among schools' ethnic compositions while holding constant size and grade level through various statistical measures prove[d] problematic" would seem to indicate the need for qualitative reporting of the data gathered. Yet the article freely makes use statistical measurements--frequencies and percentages--in presenting and making its findings of fact, leading any reasonable reader to conclude that the study's findings had statistical significance.

The location of all charter and public schools was charted on a digital map of metropolitan Phoenix. The ethnic makeup of each charter school was compared to that of the closest public school in the Phoenix area. Whether or not ethnic separation existed and how much of it existed was based on the "magnitude of difference in the proportion of White students enrolled." The idea of what constitutes "nearby" when considering the location of a public school to a charter school is admittedly ambiguous and the authors candidly acknowledge that it will open the study's findings to controversy. The authors' state that "the analysis relied on the maps prima facie" and that the use of maps did not lend itself to comprehensive analysis. Maps, however, allowed for "specifiable and readily interpretable" data. The use of the random sample technique of correlating the data was discounted as "not be[ing] prudent because charter schools do not locate under the same conditions that traditional schools do."

Finally, the authors' "surface level exploration of the data raised suspicion of a relationship between the educational mission of charters and their ethnic make-up." They decided to categorize the high school-level charter schools into two groups: those whose goals are to prepare students for higher education and those who are preparing students to get a job after graduation through a vo-tech education. They determined which charter belonged in which category by basing assignment on "self-described school missions, organizations and philosophies, and instructional programs...." Those who used the words "at risk," "school-to-work," and "tech prep" found themselves in the vo-tech category, while "academic college preparatory," "college prep," or "accelerated learning" landed the charter in the college prep category.


For the years 1995-1997, charter schools enrolled a "higher proportion of black students" than were enrolled in the public school system. They also found that Hispanic students were substantially under-represented in the charter schools examined. The data from1996 shows that there was "a threefold increase in American Indian charter school participation over their participation in traditional public schools." During this time period, there was little change in the percentage of White students attending charter schools compared with traditional public schools. However, there was a higher percentage of Whites being taught at charters than at the public schools in the third year. The authors note that "for reasons unknown the charter school enrollment data for 1997 were much less complete than for the prior years."


The fact that Hispanic students are "under-represented" in charter schools--especially those designated "at risk" and such--could be a function of their upbringing. In spite of the publicity about inner city ethnic youth being gangbangers, drug dealers, and dropouts, many Hispanic youth are raised in the traditions of their fathers and mothers, where the values of honoring family, respecting one's elders, hard work and perseverance in the face of adversity are taught. Students benefit from the lessons and discipline instilled in their homes, bringing these values to the public school classroom. Hispanic students--or any student from any ethnic background--coming from a home culture of work and respect have a better chance of succeeding in the public school system. Thus, it is not that surprising that there is not "equal" representation of Hispanics in Arizona's "at risk" or "college prep" charter schools. It is possible that they do not feel like they have to go to a "special school" to receive the education they need; they can be successful within the mainstream educational system.


The authors state that the assumption that the charter schools enroll students from surrounding or nearby neighborhoods is critical in the use of map analysis as a methodology for the data. They claim that the "reality is that students do not travel that far to attend charter schools." The fact that only two charter schools provided transportation in 1997 and that many charters do not provide funding for transportation in spite of the $174 per student per year that the schools receive from the state for transportation is part of the rationale for the previous statement. The authors cite a study done in Scotland where it was determined that "the maximum distances parents are willing to commute naturally bound their catchment areas...(Adler, Petch, and Tweedie, 1989)" and one in Alum Rock, California, where parents participating in a "voucher experiment were more concerned with proximity than with curriculum content when selecting schools (Bridge and Blackman, 1978)."


At first glance the citation of the Scotland study seems to support the authors' conclusions about student travel and charter schools. One might well ask, however, if data regarding the Scots' willingness to commute has any real bearing on how much Americans are willing to commute? Our societies are very different with respect to ownership and use of the automobile. We are the most mobile society on the planet, and it is doubtful that the average Scot family has as many vehicles as the average American family, with many of our high school aged students having their own cars. American students who live within the city limits of our major urban population centers and do not have access to personal transportation can avail themselves of a respectable public transportation system. Jeffery Henig, in his book Rethinking School Choice: Limits of the Market Metaphor, states that parents may not be choosing which charter school their child attends based on "particular instructional themes and styles so much as for the kind of energy, creativeness, and extra resources that some schools build around their magnet programs." Elmore and Fuller, citing Henig's research, opine that "despite the differences in labels among magnet schools, there may be very little difference in the actual curriculum and instruction within the schools. Hence, parents may be making reasonable choices by focusing on characteristics other than curricular themes. One of the earliest studies of public school choice, in the Alum Rock voucher experiment, found little evidence of systematic variation in instruction among schools that had nominally different themes; it also found(10) that parents tended to choose schools based on characteristics, such as location, that had little to do with schools' curricular themes"(11). While Cobb and Glass' wording of the statement that "parents in the Alum Rock, California, voucher experiment were more concerned with proximity than with curriculum content when selecting schools" (emphasis added) seems disingenuous. The wording of this statement leads the reasonable reader to believe that the parents in Alum Rock were not so much concerned about curricular issues and the quality of their children's education, but rather were focused on how close to their home a particular school was. As stated above, the fact that "there may be very little difference in the actual curriculum and instruction within the [charter] schools" may have played a role in the parents' comments about school proximity. No one would fault parents who, while trying to limit both their children's transportation costs and the traffic-related dangers associated with travel in a city, chose to send their children to the closest school, would they? So, the fact that parents place their children in charter schools closest to their homes doesn't mean that there is some underlying, inherent elitist attitude at play as seems suggested by the authors' wording.

Finally, the authors claim that the reports on the state and national level which purport Arizona charter schools serve ethnic and minority students at the same or a higher percentage level are "off the mark." This is due to the fact that the methodologies used in the collecting and reporting of data does so "in the aggregate, techniques that conceal potential evidence of ethnic separation..." (emphasis added). The authors also point out that many of Arizona's charter schools "present scenarios that lend credence to references of charters as 'creaming' or skimming agents." They mention that of a total of six non-reservation charters in Scottsdale which were sited in the poorest and most ethically integrated neighborhoods of this "affluent and highly White city...." It was noted that three of the four enrolled a larger percentage of White students than did the surrounding high schools.

In their conclusion, Cobb and Glass state that "[t]hese analyses were undertaken to discover the existence of a phenomena, if it existed." According to the authors' findings "[t]he degree of ethnic separation in Arizona schools is large enough and consistent enough to warrant concern among education policymakers." They suggest that "[a]t the very least, charter schools should be required to actively pursue ethnic representation. Legislation should mandate that charters delineate and put into practice strategies to attract ethnically diverse student."

Final Comment

The authors' call for charters "to actively pursue ethnic representation" and their demand for legislation to force charter schools to "practice strategies to attract" students other than just White students is artful. From the outset of the article the reader is carefully shepherded down a trail that will lead one inexorably to the conclusion that charter schools, at least in the Phoenix area, are State-funded private schools for White students. The authors are quick to criticize the findings of state and federal education officials, saying that their data is skewed because it was assessed in the "aggregate." Yet, they are just as quick to validate their data by declaring findings of "ethnic separation" to such a degree that legislative action is necessary to rectify a great social wrong. It may very well be that there is a "problem" in the charter schools in the Phoenix area, but this article did not convince me of the fact.

I find myself asking if a person's race really matters with respect to getting an education in Arizona's charter schools or is the "race card" being played in an attempt to create a controversy where none exists? Are learning disabilities, poor academic preparation, a less-than-ideal home life or other impediments to getting an education respecters of race? No where was there mention made of any factors other than race to account for a student's attendance at a charter school rather than at a traditional public school. Any research based on student SAT scores, cumulative GPAs, student personnel records, or any documentation of learning difficulties/disabilities that might have led the student away from the traditional classroom would carry far more weight in convincing this reader about any facts associated with the charter schools phenomena. The mobility of today's high school student via private or public transportation, a fact that could be a factor in charter school attendance numbers, was not explored in any detail. The investigative focus of the authors on a specific set of charters in a major Southwestern metropolitan city--rather than take a more global (read: statewide) or a multi-metropolitan-areas-of-equal-size approach--guarantees that any data will be ethnically impacted. The area that was to become the city of Phoenix was established around 1867(12). It is historically Hispanic(13). The original neighborhoods of metropolitan Phoenix, as in many large American cities, were ethnically-established scores of years before the advent of charter schools.

Charter schools are under attack from all sides of those organizations who stand to lose power and influence. Who will be most affected by the advent of these and similar schools? Teacher's unions, local superintendents and school boards, Departments of Public Instruction, and Schools of Education to name a few. Protecting and maintaining a power base seems to be more important than quality to some educational "professionals." As long as personal titles, educational power, and special interest matter more than providing a quality educational experience to the children of America, charter schools continue to be scrutinized and criticized by the status quo.


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  13. It will be remembered that the entire Southwestern portion of present day America was explored and settled by the Spanish more than a century before the American Revolution and that, in spite of the land grant wars and the influx of land speculators over the Santa Fe trail, the majority of the descendants of the original settlers live and work in the Southwest.


Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Charter Schools. The Center for Education Reform. <>. Accessed June 11, 1999.

Cobb, Casey D., and Glass, Gene V. Ethnic Segregation in Arizona Charter Schools. Educational Policy Analysis Archives, Vol. 7, No. 1. Ed. Gene V. Glass. <>. January 14, 1999. ISSN 1068-2341.

Cohen, Warren. "The New Education Bazaar: Charter schools represent the free market in action-with all its problems." US News Online. March, 27 1998. Accessed June 11, 1999.

Coulson, Andrew. Myth Conceptions about School Choice. School Choices at <http://www.>. Accessed June 13, 1999.

Elmore, Richard F., and Fuller, Bruce, Eds. Who Chooses? Who Loses? Culture, Institutions, and the Unequal Effects of School Choice. Andrew J. Coulson, reviewed in School Choices at <>. Accessed June 12, 1999.

Henig, Jeffrey R. Rethinking School Choice: Limits of the Market Metaphor. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. <>.

Rock Kane, Pearl. "Charter Schools: Paying Attention To Ancillary Findings." Education Week on the Web. October 14, 1998. Accessed June 13, 1999.

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