How Loose Laws Let Elite Charter Schools Exclude Minorities

Greene County has become a frequent campaign pit stop for both state and national politicians. (Terrell Clark / The Hechinger Report)
Greene County has become a frequent campaign pit stop for both state and national politicians. (Terrell Clark / The Hechinger Report)

This clearly was no ordinary public school.

Parents of prospective students converged on Lake Oconee Academy for an open house on a bright but unseasonably cold March afternoon for northern Georgia. A driveway circling a landscaped pond led them to the school’s main hall. The tan building had the same luxury-lodge feel as the nearby Ritz-Carlton resort. Parents oohed and aahed as Jody Worth, the upper school director, ushered them through the campus.

Nestled among gated communities, golf courses and country clubs, the school felt like an oasis of opportunity in a county of haves and have-nots, where nearly half of all children live in poverty while others live in multimillion-dollar lakeside houses.

The school’s halls and classrooms are bright and airy, with high ceilings and oversize windows looking out across the lush landscape. There is even a terrace on which students can work on warm days. After a guide pointed out several science labs, the tour paused at the “piano lab.” The room holds 25 pianos, 10 of them donated by residents of the nearby exclusive communities. The guide also noted that starting in elementary school, all students take Spanish, art and music classes. The high school, which enrolls less than 200 students, offers 17 Advanced Placement courses.

Lake Oconee’s amenities are virtually unheard of in rural Georgia; and because it is a public school, they are all available at the unbeatable price of free.

Conspicuously absent from the open house were African-American parents. Of the dozen or so prospective families in attendance, all were white except for one South Asian couple. At Lake Oconee Academy, 73 percent of students are white. Down the road at Greene County’s other public schools, 12 percent of students are white and 68 percent are black; there isn’t a piano lab and there are far fewer AP courses.

Lake Oconee Academy is a charter school. Charters are public schools, ostensibly open to all. The idea behind charters was to loosen rules and regulations that might hinder innovation, allowing them to hire uncertified teachers for example. But dozens of charters have also used their greater flexibility to limit which kids make it through the schoolhouse doors — creating exclusive, disproportionately white schools.

They do this in a variety of ways: Some pick from preferred attendance zones. Some don’t offer school bus transportation. Others require expensive uniforms.

Lake Oconee Academy is one of 115 charters around the country at which the percentage of white students is at least 20 points higher than at any of the traditional public schools in the districts where they are located, according to an investigation by The Hechinger Report and the Investigative Fund, produced in collaboration with NBC News. The analysis used the most recent year of federal enrollment data, for the 2015-16 school year. The 20-percentage-point difference is often used to define schools as “racially identifiable.”

These 115 charters, which together enrolled nearly 48,000 children, were concentrated in just a handful of states. In 2016, California had 33 racially identifiable white charters, Texas was home to 19 and Michigan, 14. At nearly 63 points, the gap between the percentages of white students at Lake Oconee Academy and at the whitest traditional public school in the area was the fourth-widest in the country.

In all, there are at least 747 public charter schools around the country that enroll a higher percentage of white students than any of the traditional public schools in the school districts where they are located.

These schools represented one in 10 charters operating during the 2015-16 school year. Not all of these schools are necessarily contributing to school segregation. In cities where many of the public schools almost exclusively serve African-American children, these disproportionally white charters are the only racially diverse schools. But many of the 747 charters have implemented policies that critics say make it difficult for lower-income families to access them.

Otho Tucker, who has served as Lake Oconee Academy’s CEO since it opened in 2007, said in an emailed statement that the school is “committed to serving a diverse student population.…We have taken meaningful steps to focus our outreach and enrollment efforts on families that are traditionally considered educationally disadvantaged. We are also committed to increasing the diversity of our faculty, staff, and board members, and see that as a priority and a core component of the quality educational experience that we provide our students.”

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SOURCE: Emmanuel Felton
The Hechinger Report / NBC News