Sixty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, demographic data comparing charter schools to traditional public schools in Newark highlights the fact that state schools are segregated by race and income, and there are some indications that income and race-based educational inequalities are increasing.
According to data from the Delaware Department of Education, the newly-created ninth
grade class at Newark Charter School consists of 15 percent Hispanic and African-American students, with representation of low-income students also at 15 percent.
This contrasts starkly with the freshman class at Newark High School which is composed of 64 percent African American and Hispanic students and 70 percent low-income students.
The demographic differences suggest Newark Charter’s expansion into a high school could increase the already significant income- and race-based segregation in the area’s public school system.
Newark Charter School serves students from elementary school to high school, with campuses located off of South Main Street. The high school opened its doors to its first set of students this past school year, with seventh, eighth and ninth-graders enrolled in classes in the school’s new building. Every year, a new class will be added, with the high school’s first class to graduate in 2017.
Black American studies professor Yasser Payne said it is unfortunate that while public education is meant to provide equal opportunity, the public school system is on the front lines of funneling children from different backgrounds toward alternative educational opportunities.
Newark Charter takes funding away from the district schools in the area and, along with several other Charter schools, is a school for wealthier and lighter-skinned youth, Payne said.
“Education is theoretically the great social equalizer,” Payne said. “Everyone deserves a quality education. It’s a complicated issue, but the charter system in many respects is operating like private schools. We are seeing one particular manifestation of this in Newark Charter.”
Newark Charter School gives priority to applicants that live within a five-mile radius of the school, an area in which the population is significantly wealthier and includes fewer minorities than the portion of Wilmington inside the rest of Christina District School’s feeder pattern.
This partially contributes to the demographic differences between Newark Charter and the Christina district high schools, including Newark High.
In addition, there is evidence Newark Charter School’s demographics do not hold true to the demographics represented within the five-mile radius, according to a study completed by economics professor David Stockman entitled “Newark Charter School and Resegregation: A Demographic Analysis.”
According to Payne, since Newark Charter School is not held to these same feeder pattern standards, the argument that Newark Charter actually reflects the surrounding population would not be relevant even if it were accurate.
“I don’t think it’s representing the population in the sense that most students from Wilmington are bused out to neighborhoods like Newark to go to high school,” Payne said. “So I don’t think that’s a reasonable argument. This is where Wilmington’s youth are going to school.”
According to Payne, there are barriers beyond the five-mile radius that exclude low-income minorities from some charter schools in the state, like uniform fees, yearly institutional fees or the lack of free and reduced lunches. New legislation is in place requiring lunch programs in all charters starting in fall 2014, after significant community pressure.
The demographic differences between charter and traditional public schools in the same area has become common in New Castle County, and raises concerns that charter schools are creating a publicly-financed “separate and unequal” school system across the state.
While public and private schools in the state have long been separated by income and racial barriers, evidence suggests that charter schools are becoming a replacement for the private schools.
The percentage of charter school enrollment increased from less than 1 percent to 6.9 percent between 1997 and 2011, according to Delaware Charter School Data, a report prepared by Kelly Sherretz and Jenna Bucsak of the Institute of Public Administration at the university.
While traditional public school and nonpublic school enrollment both decreased over the same period, the decrease in private school enrollments represents a larger proportional impact (over 20 percent) than that of public school enrollments (4.6 percent).
Charter schools throughout the state, such as Wilmington Charter School and Newark Charter School, are often cited as scoring higher on state exams. Most of the higher-performing charter schools have a low enrollment of poor and minority students, and two charters with more low-income students than average perform better than average in reading and math.
Problems with the charter system in the state have inspired some state legislators to propose
reforms. Sen. Bryan Townsend (D-District 11) sponsored Senate Bill 209 to give the State Board of Education the ability to take into account the impact that a proposed Charter would have on the surrounding school district.
“The State Board of Education doesn’t have the authority to consider a school’s impact on the surrounding area during the approval process,” Townsend, an alumnus of the Christina School District, said. “The logic behind the current charter approval process is that schools wouldn’t be applying if other schools were doing the job—well that’s just not true.”
Townsend said someone submitting a Charter school application to the State Board of Education could essentially photocopy the application from a previously approved Charter school and the Board would have to approve it.
When it comes to Newark Charter in particular, Townsend acknowledges the demographic impacts the school creates, but does not see the school as having the same exclusionary practices as some other charter schools.
“There’s no doubt that Newark Charter has changed the demographics of the surrounding
schools, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the troubled practices of some of the other schools,” Townsend said. “Newark Charter isn’t skimming applicants the way some other schools do.”
Payne contends that low-income minority students do not have less aptitude than higher-income students, schools just often lack the necessary cultural competency to cope with the issues that can arise as a function of poverty. These issues might cause students to act out, but that does not mean low-income minority populations do not want to learn.
Payne said that educators in state districts often come from the same universities and are trained with the same generic curriculums. Educators leave these universities with educational methods that have gaps when it comes to teaching students from low-income minority backgrounds.
Since schools do not have the resources or expertise to deal with low-income students, the current solution seems to be creating schools that for whatever reason end up excluding them.
In fact, Payne runs a research project in which he trains members of the low-income
community in Southbridge, which has a near 100 percent high school dropout rate, to do scholarly research, and he has seen overwhelmingly successful results.
“I say send me your baddest and your worst for my PAR (Participatory Action Research) project. I will show that they’ll perform,” Payne said. “But the thing is I’ll tailor an educational program that is culturally competent and will be more rigorous, in fact than these schools—I train them like graduate students.”