The Good and Bad of Black Charter Schools

By Maura Mulholland

The controversy surrounding charter schools has existed almost since their inception. Charter schools were originally conceptualized as an alternative to public schools, where teachers could experiment with new ideas in education. They soon became predominantly Black schools, as Black families jumped at the opportunity to both put their students at the forefront of education, and remove them from rampant racism in largely white public schools. Charter schools now run on a publicly funded “business model”, where they are more responsible for their students’ outcomes than public schools, in exchange for more funding. But have charter schools truly improved the educational experiences of the mostly Black populations they serve? 

Many critics of charter schools say that they have simply reinvented segregation. Charter schools mostly serve the Black community and other racial minorities, as many such schools are located in urban areas. Racial isolation within these schools seems to be concentrated within Black and Latino populations: at a typical Black student’s charter high school, three-fourths of their classmates are also likely to be Black. Instead of being governed by a publicly accessible school board, charter schools are run by private organizations, which give community members much less say over what happens in the schools that serve their neighborhoods. 

While there is suspicion surrounding charter schools, other members of the Black community have expressed their support for some charter institutions. Schools like the Barbara A. Sizemore Academy in Chicago teach an Afro-centric curriculum in an effort to decolonize the Black students they serve. Parents of the children at Sizemore also appreciate the extra care and attention that their children receive in charter schools, as it prevents them from “slipping through the cracks”, a phenomenon that occurs frequently in larger, traditional schools in big districts. This “leveling of the playing field” is supported by state funding which is often contested by white progressives: people who Black parents say should have no place deciding the futures of schools their own children do not attend. 

Whatever the case, charter schools have very powerful supporters, especially in big, urban school districts. Billionaire Eli Broad described a $490 million plan in 2015 that plans to educate half of the student body of Los Angeles in charter schools by 2023, and former California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have held charter schools more accountable to the state legislature. Brown oversaw the opening of multiple charter schools while he was the Mayor of Oakland. An ongoing issue for charter schools will be a lack of transparency that engenders mistrust. There are many in the Black community who question whose interest these intercity charter schools serve.

The Growing Diversity of Black America

The Black population of the United States is diverse. Its members have varied histories in the nation – many are descendants of enslaved people, while others are recently arrived immigrants. The Black population also has nuanced ethnic and racial identities reflecting intermarriage and international migration. As a result, there are key distinctions in demographic and economic characteristics between different parts of the national Black population, highlighting its diverse multitude of backgrounds.

Chart showing that among the U.S. Black population, both multiracial and Hispanic numbers have grown since 2000

The U.S. Black population is also growing. In 2019, 46.8 million people in the U.S. identified their race as Black, either alone or as part of a multiracial or ethnic background. That is up from 36.2 million in 2000.1 The Black share of the U.S. population is higher today than in 2000 as well. About 14% of the national population said they were Black in 2019, up from 13% who did so in 2000.

At the same time, the Black population’s racial self-identification is changing. Among those who self-identify as “Black or African American,” the share who say it is their only racial or ethnic identification has declined over the past two decades. In 2019, 40.7 million, or 87%, identified their race as Black alone and their ethnicity as non-Hispanic, while around 3.7 million, or 8%, indicated their race was Black and another race (most often White) and not Hispanic. Another 2.4 million, or 5%, self-identified as both Black and Hispanic, or Black Hispanic.2But these shares have changed since 2000. Then, 93% identified their race and ethnicity as Black alone.

The nation’s Black population is changing in other ways too. A growing share are foreign born, the population is aging (though some segments are significantly younger), and a growing share are college graduates. These trends and more are explored in this report. Accompanying it is a fact sheet showing the demographic and economic characteristics of the nation’s Black population in 2019, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey. Findings for all Black people, non-Hispanic single-race Black people, non-Hispanic multiracial Black people and Black Hispanics are shown separately. A downloadable spreadsheet of findings is also available.

Read more here