Practitioner Articles

The Unfulfilled Potential of Charter Schools to Integrate

In addition to charters’ effects on student achievement and the possibility of “counseling out” low-performing students, another issue that is frequently referenced in charter school debates is that of school segregation. The articles described below argue that charter schools have the potential to create diverse student bodies but that the reality is that most charters perpetuate or exacerbate school segregation. While the Educational Leadership article by Kahlenberg and Potter (2015) focuses on the former point, the Phi Delta Kappan article by Rotberg (2014) emphasizes the latter point.

The Importance of Integrated Schools

First, Kahlenberg and Potter (2015) and Rotberg (2014), who are educational researchers and veteran teachers, both argue for the great importance of integrated public schools. Due to a number of factors, especially de facto housing segregation in the U.S., American public schools are still extremely segregated by both socioeconomic status and race more than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

Rotberg (2014) notes that student achievement is greatly affected by the socioeconomic status of their school and argues for the importance of more socioeconomically-integrated schools. Similarly, Kahlenberg and Potter (2014) argue that all students benefit academically and socially from schools that are racially and socioeconomically diverse. That is, in addition to improving student achievement, diverse schools also improve intergroup relations.

The Potential for Integrated Charters

In their article on potential routes for improving charter schools, one of Kahlenberg and Potter’s (2015) three main suggestions is that charters should make a greater effort to become more integrated. They write that because charters often have the ability to pull students from a wider geographic area than traditional public schools, they have the opportunity to actively work toward greater integration. Rotberg (2014) agrees that some charters are able to increase diversity in the student body, but only when they make explicit efforts to do so.

The Reality of Segregation

Despite the potential for charter schools be examples of school integration, the reality is usually the opposite. Kahlenberg and Potter (2015) acknowledge that the most charters make no conscious effort to achieve racial or socioeconomic integration, thereby perpetuating school segregation. Rotberg (2014) goes a step further to argue that the design of charter schools actually exacerbates school segregation in many cases.

Rotberg (2014) points to a number of ways that charters actively contribute to segregation: targeting particular racial or ethnic groups, requiring that families make monetary contributions or volunteer their time, admitting students based on achievement, and offering programs that appeal to particular groups.


Both Kahlenberg and Potter (2015) and Rotberg (2014) appreciate the importance of diverse schools for all students. Furthermore, both agree that charters are currently contributing to the perpetuation (or even exacerbation) of segregation in schools, yet both are also hopeful that charters can lead to greater within-school diversity. However, while Kahlenberg and Potter (2015) seem to locate the solution at the school level, Rotberg (2014) locates the solution at the federal level, arguing that federal policy makers should stop blindly pushing for more charters and instead pay greater attention to the unintended segregating effects of charter schools.