When charter schools were envisioned by then-teachers' union president Albert Shanker in the late 1980s, he described them as potential educational laboratories for children of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
That vision hasn't exactly panned out. Decades later, charter schools -- which are publicly funded, but independently operated -- are some of the most racially segregated schools in the country.
Now, the U.S. Department of Education is taking a small step to learn more about the demographics of children served by charter schools.
A notice posted Wednesday by the Education Department in the Federal Register calls for applications for a competitive charter school grant program. The program awards money -- an estimated $160 million this year -- to help states in the "planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools and for the dissemination of information about successful charter schools." Goals include increasing access to high-quality schools for educationally underserved students and promoting diversity in charter schools.
The call for applications resembles those of previous years. But this year's notice asks -- but does not require -- applicants to detail how they will publicly report charter school demographics, including race, ethnicity and disability status. It also asks states to describe how they report comparable data for surrounding public school districts.
An estimated 3 million kids attend charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia. In 15 of these states, a vast majority of black students attend intensely segregated schools, research shows.
The update is designed to ensure that charter schools are more transparent about the students they serve, said Nadya Chinoy Dabby, the Education Department's assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement.
The update comes as the Education Department is emphasizing the importance of socioeconomic diversity in schools as a way to reduce the achievement gap between rich and poor students and prepare them to succeed in an increasingly diverse society.
“There’s no question that the urgency around socioeconomic integration in our schools is drawn not only from our desire for better academic outcomes, but also from the understanding that ours is diverse world and we must ensure our students are prepared to succeed in a diverse 21st century society,” Education Secretary John King Jr. said during an event Tuesday. “You can’t find the CEO of major company or president of a university who won’t tell you one of their top priorities isn’t increasing diversity."