Detroit: For-Profit Charters Minimize Risk At Expense Of Poor, Minorities?

A recent study (PDF) of Detroit’s charter school locations and competition techniques by for-profit charter school operators provides chilling insight into the potential marginalization of African-American students who live in high-poverty areas. Released in October and written by Christopher Lubienski of the University of Illinois and Charisse Gulosino of Brown University, the paper outlines the tactics of educational management organizations (EMOs) that operate for-profit charter schools using a geo-spatial and temporal analysis of EMO charter openings.

In Ohio when a student is enrolled in a charter school, they bring the same amount of state aid with them once they enroll, regardless of their academic proficiency level. Despite getting the same dollar amount per student, this study posits that charter schools are beginning to view students as “differently valued clients” who bring more than a predetermined amount of state aid and are trying to “improve market position by adopting ‘positioning’ strategies not to produce, but to attract, ‘better’ students.” These positioning strategies include the actual physical location of the schools as well as the image management of the programs.The Detroit Public School system has lost over 40,000 students to charter schools in the metropolitan area since 2003, lowering the district’s enrollment to under 120,000 students (the district’s capacity is 180,000).Public transportation is divided between the urban core and the surrounding suburbs:

“One bus system serves primarily the city, while another serves primarily the suburbs, with few areas of overlap. Finally, approximately one-third of Detroit residents live below the poverty level, suggesting that many Motor City residents may not own cars. Thus, school location is a critical consideration for many in weighing their different school options.”

The majority of EMOs tend to open in more affluent areas:

“While a number of for-profit EMOs are active in the Detroit area, and a few (such as the Leona Group and Edison Schools) have actually located some of their schools in areas where they may serve more disadvantaged students, several EMOs exemplify the avoidance behaviors that, in the aggregate, may lead to student selection and sorting.”

Furthermore, EMOs are being very particular about exactly where they open, for that will determine who they serve as a result of the transportation inequities of the city:

“EMOs appear to be using clustering and ringing strategies, whereby the schools that they manage are located in ways that essentially ring areas with higher levels of poverty (especially compared to their mission-oriented competitors). These patterns are notable because these are some of the more financially successful EMOs, and they appear to be adopting strategies through which they reduce risk by avoiding students who may be most likely to damage their market position. These findings have implications for the potential of the profit motive in enhancing equitable access to educational options.”

Indeed, the strategies that are being employed by EMOs under the pretext of choice and competition to foster competitiveness between DPS and charter schools could potentially be the beginning of a more comprehensive resegregation of the DPS system and metropolitan area:

“It appears that efforts to harness the profit motive to promote equitable educational opportunities may not only be off target, but may in fact undercut efforts around such goals. In fact, the patterns highlighted by this geographic analysis suggest that competitive incentives may encourage organizational strategies aligned with tendencies toward segregation.”

Solidarity hat tip goes out to Lisa at the Ohio Federation of Teachers.