Opinion: Book Offers Look at How Charter Schools Divide Communities

Mark Weber | July 6, 2015 | Education, Opinion
Founders and operators of charters mean well, author says, but charter system leads to further segregation of education

Mark Weber
It’s a sunny summer day in Hoboken, and everywhere I turn on Washington Street, I see the same thing:


Hoboken has become a mecca for young, affluent families looking to enjoy the trappings of urban living. And yet the city retains a significant population of economically disadvantaged families, many living in public housing separated from the rest of the city.

This interplay between segregation and gentrification is the subject of a fascinating new book by Molly Vollman Makris: “Public Housing and School Choice in a Gentrified City: Youth Experiences of Uneven Opportunity.”

Makris, a professor of Urban Studies at CUNY – as well as a Hoboken resident with a preschool daughter – looks carefully at her community to determine how segregation occurs when affluent families move in, and what can be done to ameliorate its effects in the schools and throughout the community.

I met Makris in her city to discuss her findings, which deal with the role of charter schools and intra-district school choice in Hoboken.

The city’s three charters serve a significantly different population than the district schools: fewer students who are Limited English Proficient, fewer students of color, and far fewer students eligible for free lunch, a measure of economic disadvantage. There is also a significant difference in the student demographics of the district’s elementary schools.

Despite this, New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe recently ruled that one of the charters could expand because, in his view, that school did not have a segregative effect.

Hespe’s ruling has created a political firestorm in Hoboken, leading to a privately funded appeal on behalf of the local school district, which fears the financial implications of the expansion.

What follows is an edited version of a much longer conversation between Makris and me. I have posted the entire interview on my blog; however, I also encourage everyone to read Makris’s book, a comprehensive, honest, and engaging exploration of how school policies shape our communities.

Weber: One thing that struck me right away is that your book isn’t at all a takedown of charter schools.

Makris: It’s not. It’s a larger analysis of the direction of education policy. The book does take a critical look at school choice and what’s happening in Hoboken, but it’s not about the individual actors. There aren’t heroes or villains per se; it’s about these larger systems of inequality that are happening in many places.

Weber: You take the charter school people at their word when they say they are genuinely interested in the inequality of their student populations and they want to do something about it.

Makris: I do. I think their intention was to create some level of socio-economic and racial diversity. But, given the demographic makeup of the founders, that was going to be a challenge. And part of that is charter school policies. It takes a lot of work to start a charter school. Many of these were stay-at-home parents and parents with flexible careers where they can spend hours and hours starting a charter school. So when you have them at the helm, it’s going to be harder to create a school that represents the entire community. There also are no policies in place that allow charter schools to easily “manipulate” their lotteries to create socio-economic and racial diversity.

Weber: Is it fair to say that starting and sustaining a charter school, by the nature of its structure, is going to attract a different sort of family than a traditional public school?

Makris: Yes; we see that everywhere. We see that in Newark and Harlem and other neighborhoods that don’t look anything like Hoboken. I think your research has shown this, in the difference between free and reduced-price lunch students, this level of creaming.

I call it charter confusion, which is something we found in Hoboken and when I was working with the Newark Schools Research Collaborative. People are just confused about what a charter school is and who can attend a charter school, whether they were in Newark or Hoboken, whether they’re low-income or advantaged.

Weber: So you’re saying there is some global misunderstanding about charter schools.

Makris: I think it’s a bit of a global misunderstanding, but when it comes time to figure it out for your own children, you tap into your own networks. And if your network all goes to the local neighborhood school, and you went to the local neighborhood school, and you don’t really have the resources to do a thorough investigation of all your school options, you’re going to go to the local neighborhood school.

Weber: But if you cleared up that confusion, do you believe public housing residents would see the so-called “advantages” of a charter school trumping what they see as the advantages of their neighborhood school?

Makris: That’s a great question. It’s hard to predict; I do think there are enough families in public housing who would be interested in the opportunity – if they see that as an opportunity. I think there are some who still wouldn’t, which of course would still mean there would remain issues with the kind of creaming we see in Newark and elsewhere.

Weber: What did you think about the commissioner’s decision?

Makris: I was not surprised. I’m not a quantitative researcher, so I don’t dive deep into the numbers. But right away when I looked at it, I thought: “He’s looking at the under age 18 population in Hoboken.” And a huge part of that population is under five. To use that to compare to the school-aged population is, to me, flawed to begin with.

But as I write in the book, I don’t think the whole problem is the charter schools. I also think it’s important to note that in some way these urban schools have always been segregated. So I don’t think the charters and intra-district school choice are creating segregation so much as inhibiting desegregation. I think we all could do a better job.

Weber: You spent a lot of time talking with Hoboken’s affluent parents. It seems that putting their kids into a school with a significant number of students who are in economic disadvantage is not an option for them, particularly when their children get up to high school.

Makris: For those parents, the idea of sending them to the public elementary school near public housing is totally off of the table. In the junior-senior high school, we’re starting to see a little change. There are groups of adamant advantaged parents – often early wave gentrifiers, even some who were involved with the early charter schools, who are passionate about education in Hoboken – who send their children to the high school, and enjoy that diverse experience.

But for the vast majority of affluent parents I interviewed, the high school is not an option. The public school near public housing is not an option.

Weber: So if that’s true, why are you optimistic about integrating the schools throughout the city?

Makris: Well, I would say we have the potential here, and we have that in large part because of gentrification. There is such a desire for urban living that you have more advantaged people who are choosing to live here and remain here. These people, when I interview them, say that diversity is one of the reasons they want to live in a place like this.

Weber: Part of school choice, to my mind, is this idea of values. Some people look at an advantaged charter school and say: “It makes no sense: why wouldn’t anyone want to send their child here?” But isn’t that an imposition of values on others?

Makris: I think so. You’re not recognizing the value of that neighborhood school, and what that school might represent: the history for the families of that school, the convenience, the idea of where your children may fit in.

Research led me to think that one reason public housing families may not choose a charter school is because of the progressive pedagogy. So I went into this thinking that might be part of the issue. But I found that wasn’t the reason for the decision, because there was such a level of charter confusion, and so many people thought these were private schools and would cost money; it wasn’t that they weren’t going because they perceived that the schools weren’t strict enough.

Weber: That whole debate over school choice has become highly politicized, with stakeholders on all sides making claims about the effectiveness of charter schools. Is it possible, in this environment, to have an honest conversation about school choice and segregation?

Makris: I think it can be difficult to talk honestly about what’s going on with the loudest voices in the room. In my research, I’ve tried not to rely solely on the loudest voices in the room. The quiet voices I think are open to having these conversations. I see that in public housing, too. I go to board of education meetings, housing meetings – there are always the loudest voices in the room, and you always know where they stand.

I’ve done two book talks in the community, and afterwards, there are always parents who say, “Thank you for writing about this. It seems like people were really honest with you.”

Again, they’re the quieter voices in the room. They’re parents of young children who have a social justice mentality, and they’re asking: “How can we talk about this? How can we meet as a community and talk openly about change without imposing values on people? What are positive solutions?”