Michigan’s schools are today both separate and unequal, and the situation seems to be getting worse. A new study by Michigan State University’s Education Policy Center suggests an alarming rise in Michigan schools deemed as segregated over the past 15 years. Much of this increase is due to the rise in charter schools, which tend to move students from one racially isolated school to another. Touted as a solution to inequality between schools across the state, the number of charter schools in Michigan tops 200 and is rising, but the supposed promise of charter schools remains unfulfilled. Relying on charter schools as a solution to education inequality is not only misguided, but it also overlooks the issue of school segregation, which charter schools can do little to address. For any benefits some students fleeing public school systems receive, charter schools leave traditional public schools even worse off.

Sarah Royce

The study from found that between 1992 and 2005, the number of schools with at least an 80-percent black student body jumped from 294 to 431, a statistic that still overlooks the number of nearly all-white schools across the state. The finding is nothing new; Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project found that in 2000, nearly two-thirds of the state’s black students attended schools with a 90 to 100-percent minority student body – the highest rate in the nation.

Wide achievement gaps and segregated school districts are as much a product of past, legally enforced segregation as still-present housing segregation in the state. There may be no easy solution, but remedying state funding inequalities between affluent and poorer districts would be an important start.

Allowing these trends to persist is not only unacceptable, but shortchanges children across the state of the education they deserve. Undoubtedly, all parents want the best for their kids. But if the benchmark for a solid education becomes attendance at a charter school, it takes the urgency out of improving traditional public schools. In effect, the charter school movement gives up on the public school system and fails to fully address underlying social injustices.

The students who head for charter schools are in some ways more fortunate than the students left behind in failing public schools – at the very least, their parents have taken the initiative to seek out a better education for them. Removing these students from the public school system only further deprives districts of the involved parents needed to build a strong community within the district.

Public school budgets are directly correlated to enrollment. In the competition for students charter schools supposedly foster, each student that leaves the system costs the district thousands of dollars in state appropriations, making it even more difficult to hold on to remaining students.

Simply abandoning traditional public districts may help some students, but it will not improve underachieving schools or decrease segregation – both necessary goals – in the short or long term.

College admissions systems like the University’s can only do so much to remedy educational inequalities that begin before kindergarten. Many Michigan schools are both separate and unequal – failing in every way to meet the idea of equal, integrated schooling that Brown v. Board of Education deemed a right of every student more than 50 years ago.

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