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Voices: Segregation and DPS (Updated)

Alexander Ooms is senior fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation. This entry is cross-posted from the Donnell-Kay blog.

Updated Wednesday. Click here to go to updated section.

One of the early criticisms leveled against charter schools was that they were “skimming kids” – that the lottery enrollment policy used by charters resulted in the admission of primarily the brightest, most motivated students. This argument has faded (at least in Denver) since charters here serve the same demographics as traditional schools, as well as the undisputed fact that many charters with lottery enrollment have done poorly (it would be a circular argument indeed that the lottery process results in skimming but only by successful charters).

However, the pendulum has now swung to the other side. A new accusation making the rounds is that charter schools – many of whom are focused on low-income neighborhoods – are in fact increasing the economic segregation of our public school system.

It’s an odd argument on its face. The forced segregation of students – whether by class or race – is clearly not the same as a parent’s affirmative choice to send their child to a charter school. But still, the claim has now entered the realm of conventional wisdom and is often repeated as fact. Which is a shame because when one looks at the data, at least in Denver, it’s also clearly not true.

The primary argument in the segregation claim is to compare charter schools with the average student population. In Denver, roughly 72 percent of students are low-income (as measured by the proportion eligible for free and reduced lunch, or FRL). Therefore, the argument goes, any school that serves a far higher proportion of low-income students is making our system more segregated.

But what’s overlooked is that there are virtually no “average” schools. It’s a bit like comparing any specific family to the national household average of 3.24 adults and 0.94 children (2010 Census). It’s pretty hard to match up to an “average” that does not really exist.

And this is true in Denver. As can be seen in the chart below, Denver has a wide distribution of low-income students, and there are almost no schools that have serve a student population anywhere close to the DPS average of roughly 72 percent FRL (all data is from the 2011 School Performance Framework, or SPF).

As the chart shows, there are 45 percent (52 schools total) of district schools with FRL over 90 percent. And there are 38 percent (eight total) of charter schools with FRL over 90 percent. And also interestingly, at the other end of the spectrum there are 16 percent of district schools (19 total) with FRL below 40 percent, compared to just 9.5 percent of charter schools (2 total). Against a mythical district average, almost any school can be compared unfavorably.

Now let’s look at the same data in a slightly different way. The graph below ranks all 116 schools on the 2011 SPF by their FRL percentage. The red lines are charter schools, and the blue lines are district schools.

The distribution here is pretty clear – visually, charter schools are proportioned about the same as district schools. And the data bears this out – there are 66.7 percent of charter schools that are equal or above 70 percent FRL (roughly the district mean), compared to 67.2 percent of traditional schools. There is virtually no difference.

So, are public schools in Denver segregated? Yes. Are charter schools any more segregated than traditional schools? No. Much like other demographics, charter schools in Denver reflect the public school system of which they are a part.

Enter selective admissions schools.

But let’s not stop there. With the data pretty clear that there is no difference between the segregation in charter schools and traditional schools, the analysis got me thinking back to the original claim – if schools that “skim” the best students are serving equal proportions of low-income students. And in Denver (as in most cities) there is a group of schools that are clearly skimming the best students.

For Denver is full of selective admissions schools and programs. These are schools — or programs within schools — which select their students based on some criteria, be it academic prowess or artistic talent. Many have application forms for admission equal to private schools, evaluate test scores, grades and even ask for personal references.

It’s a little hard to specify all of the selective admissions school and programs as there appears to be no definitive list – I went through the SchoolChoice material and included schools or programs which were labeled as magnets (a list follows at the end of this piece). It’s often not clear how large the magnet program is within a larger school. But I would bet that the selective admissions programs within these schools serve a far smaller percentage of low-income students than do traditional admissions.

Somewhat conveniently, there is exactly the same number of schools with selective admissions on the SPF as there are charter schools (21 of each). These three types of schools have different enrollment policies – charters (lottery enrollment), traditional schools (geographic enrollment) and magnet schools (selective enrollment). When we include schools with selective admissions, the graph looks like this:

Unlike charter schools who enroll students through open lotteries, the schools that enroll by selective admissions skew pretty heavily to the right, and include 10 of the 23 schools that serve the lowest percentages of low-income students.

And once again, the data shows what the graphic teases. There are still 66.7 percent of charter schools above 70 percent FRL. There are now 61.2 percent of traditional schools above the district mean. Those are not too far apart. But there are just 33.3 percent of selective admissions schools with a proportion of low-income students equal to or above the district mean. In fact, almost half of selective admissions schools serve less than 50 percent FRL, and almost one in five serve less than 20 percent FRL students.

Why does this matter? Because in a district that is 72 percent FRL, every school that selects students and ends up with 20 percent or less FRL requires four other schools serving 85 percent or more FRL students. To balance the four selective admissions schools serving less than 20 percent FRL students within DPS, there must be 16 other schools serving 85 percent or more FRL students. Which, it should surprise no one, is exactly what you get.

So is there a type of school within DPS that is systematically contributing to segregation within our public school system? You bet. But they are not charter schools, and they are not a secret. They are selective admissions schools – including many of the most popular programs in the district — and they are hiding in plain sight.

Updated Wednesday:

DPS staff has kindly submitted a full list of school which select students based on qualification requirements (see the comments). I appreciate the clarifications and welcome any other corrections. The updated list follows below.

The corrected list has fewer selective admissions schools and programs (18 instead of 21), however it also makes the difference even more pronounced. The updated chart is as follows:

The percentage of traditional schools (which is becoming more and more of a misnomer given the growing list of exceptions) with FRL above the district average rises to 75%, charter schools remain at 67%, with just 4 schools (out of 18, or just 22%) with some or all selective admissions.

Another fair point raised is the difference between the five schools which are entirely selective admissions, and the 13 who have selective admissions programs within a larger student population. If we isolate just these 18 schools, the graph looks like this:

A good question would be to further understand the demographic mix of the selective admissions programs, which will vary in size. It’s been helpful and illustrative to have DPS provide data on the specific schools; I hope they will do the same for the selective admissions programs by reporting on their FRL percentages.

Somewhat incidentally, I fully support selective admissions schools and programs as an important part of a broader public school portfolio. But the updated data only underscores the initial point: selective admissions schools and programs have a cost, as they make other schools more segregated. Any honest conversation about segregation in Denver’s public schools need to acknowledge this fact.

Note: Corrected list with new additions in bold. Selective admissions schools: Polaris, Denver School of the Arts, DCIS, CEC, Kunsmiller. Selective programs within schools: Cory, Carson, Southmoor, Edison, Teller, Hamilton, Morey, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, MLK Early College, Palmer, Bill Roberts, Gust. I am not including Knight as it is not listed on the SPF.

Initial list with incorrect schools crossed out: Polaris, Cory, Denver School of the Arts, Carson, Southmoor, Edison, Lincoln Elementary, Teller, Sandoval, DCIS, Hamilton, Morey, George Washington, Denison, Valdez, Kunsmiller, CEC, Hallett, Gust, Bryant-Webster and Fairmont.

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