Working Paper: Charter Schools and Segregation in North Carolina

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Working Paper: Charter Schools and Segregation in North Carolina

Helen F. Ladd and Mavzuna Turaeva use information on the charter school choices made by North Carolina families, separately by race or ethnicity, who switched their child from a traditional public school (TPS) to a charter school in 2015-16 to explore how such choices affect racial segregation between schools and racial isolation within charter schools. They find that the movement of white, but not minority, switchers to charter schools increases racial segregation between schools. Further, using a conditional logit model to estimate revealed preferences, they find that the value parents place on the racial composition of individual charter schools differs by the race and income of the switchers.

The issue of school choice and segregation has been central to education policy debates for decades. In his initial argument for vouchers, published in 1955, Milton Friedman conceded that segregationists stood to employ vouchers to enroll their children in all-white private schools instead of public schools mandated to integrate a year earlier by Brown v. Board of Education. But to Friedman, the answer was not regulation but moral suasion. Friedman’s opinion was rendered technically moot in 1976 by Runyon v. McCrary, which barred private schools from making admissions decisions based on race, yet it nevertheless indicated a fundamental problem with systems of school choice.

With the introduction of charter schools in the early 1990s, commentators raised concerns about school location, inadequate transportation, contracts mandating significant parental involvement, and shared parental proclivities as implicit mechanisms or pathways to segregation. In “Parental Preferences for Charter Schools in North Carolina: Implications for Racial Segregation and Isolation,” Helen F. Ladd and Mavzuna Turaeva add substantially to the literature validating these concerns.

Using data for the nearly 11,000 North Carolina families who transferred their children from traditional public schools to charter schools in 2015-16, Ladd and Turaeva document that the migration of white, though not minority, switchers from traditional public schools to charter schools increased segregation. “We find that by switching to charter schools that are whiter than the traditional public schools they leave behind,” they write, “white switchers contribute to racial segregation across schools.” At the elementary level, 67 percent of white switchers enrolled in charter schools with lower shares of minority students; at the middle-school level, 72 percent of white switchers did so.

To buttress their analysis, Ladd and Turaeva employ a conditional logit model to estimate revealed preferences. To infer parental preferences by race as well as socioeconomic status, Ladd and Turaeva use five criteria to define the value of charter schools for parents: racial composition; proximity; academic achievement; availability of transportation and lunch; and mission. Ladd and Turaeva conclude that with these dimensions considered together, it is clear that white parents disproportionately favored white charter schools and exhibited a pronounced aversion to significantly minority charter schools.

With this working paper, Ladd, a professor emerita of public policy and economics at Duke University, and Turaeva, a doctoral candidate in public policy at Duke, update their analysis published in February under the same title as a working paper for the Duke Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. In both, Ladd and Turaeva build on research Ladd did with Charles Clotfelter and John Holbein for an article published by Education Finance and Policy in 2017 on growing segregation across the charter sector in North Carolina from 1999 to 2012. In addition, Ladd and Turaeva’s analysis complements a 2019 NCSPE working paper on charter schools in Kansas City by Patrick Denice, Michael DeArmond, and Matthew Carr, who found a disproportionate number of white students transferring from traditional public schools to new charter schools from 2011 to 2015.

Lucid, rigorous, and supported with eight tables of telling data, this study advances our understanding of school choice and raises important questions about how choice systems should be designed.

Samuel E. Abrams
Director, NCSPE
September 29, 2020

Coming soon: Derek Black on the evolution of school privatization in the United States, derived from his recently published book, School House Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy (PublicAffairs, 2020); and Kfir Mordechay on school choice and gentrification in New York.

Published Tuesday, Sep. 29, 2020