Myth 1: Open Enrollment Charter Schools Don’t Enroll Many Black or Hispanic Students

Arkansas has a history of severe racial problems in its K–12 schools. A case in point is the infamous 1957 Little Rock Nine case, in which a group of nine African American students were denied enrollment at the all-white Central High public school.

Over the years, laws have been enacted to ensure that public schools are less segregated. For example, the Public School Choice Act of 1989 allowed for inter-district school choice, with a restriction that a student cannot transfer into a district that has a higher percentage of his or her race than his or her own residential district. The restriction was implemented because of the fear that white parents would transfer their students to predominantly white school districts, which tend to have more resources than predominantly minority districts.

Proponents of school choice argue that racial and economic divisions arise from the zoning system, which restricts the movement of students from their residential school districts into other school districts. School choice, they say, is the best way to allow minorities to transfer from poor-performing schools into better-performing schools, regardless of the racial composition of those schools.

Fast forward to May 2016, when a hearing on the expansion of charter schools in Little Rock revealed that concerns about school choice leading to segregation still linger. Charter school opponents argue that charter schools in Arkansas will worsen segregation. They believe that charter schools enroll mostly white and Asian students, leaving behind blacks and Hispanics in the failing traditional public schools.

To address this concern, the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics examined state-level data. Figure 1 shows the enrollment by race in both traditional public schools and open enrollment charter schools. Because some argued that Asians should not be included in the minority group during the Little Rock hearings on charter school expansion, our graph shows what open enrollment charter school enrollment looks like both when Asians are not grouped together with whites (green) and when they are (purple).


The graph depicts three different ways of looking at the same data. In all three cases, charter schools enroll a larger percentage of minorities than traditional public schools do. Using the Arkansas Department of Education categorization, which combines all races besides whites into the minority group (green bars), charter schools enroll a smaller percentage of white students (43.53%) than traditional public schools do (62.62%). When you exclude Asians from the minority group (purple bars), charter school enrollment is 47.73% white and Asian compared to 64.00% in traditional public schools. The third case, which perhaps is the main concern for charter school opponents, is the opportunity charter schools provide to Hispanics and blacks (blue bars). In Arkansas, half of the students in open enrollment charter schools are Hispanic black, while Hispanics and blacks comprise 32.32% of the total enrollment in traditional public schools. Thus, open enrollment charter schools in Arkansas are affording minorities opportunities to choose a school that best meets their children’s needs.