Racial diversity in online charter schools differs by state

by John Watson

A recent EdWeek article, Racial Diversity of Online Charters Varies Widely By State, Study Finds, provides valuable data while raising a set of interesting questions about the implications of diversity in online schools. The article reports on a presentation by University of Alabama assistant education professor Bryan Mann at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association earlier this year.

The headline captures the main finding: there is little consistency among states in the percentage of white and non-white students enrolled in online charter schools. In states including Arizona, Nevada, and South Carolina, the percentage of white students in online charter schools is higher than state averages. In Colorado, the percentage of white students in online charter schools is lower than state averages. The article does not suggest reasons why these differences may exist. It then goes on to make two interesting and related points.

First, the article explains that online schools tend “to lack the extreme racial segregation and isolation found in many brick-and-mortar schools.” In other words, state averages mask the fact that many students attend physical schools whose student populations do not reflect state averages and have either a very high or very low percentage of non-white students. Therefore, even if an online school has a lower percentage of non-white students enrolled compared to state averages, it may be more diverse than most schools in the state.

Second, the ramifications of diversity (or lack thereof) in an online school are unclear. According to Mann, as relayed in the article,

“the academic and social benefits that accrue to students who attend racially diverse schools may not occur in full-time online schools, where face-to-face and in-person interactions are far more limited than in brick-and-mortar schools…Diversity for its own sake won't necessarily lead to a better education for all students in this relatively new schooling environment.”

This observation seems plausible on the surface, but in online schools that encourage interaction among students, it’s reasonable to think that students would benefit from the advantages of diversity in education. Students from all schools experience so much of their lives online, regardless of the extent to which their education is online, that a reasonable hypothesis is their experience of diversity is similarly impactful whether interactions are online or face-to-face.

“More research is needed” is such a cliché, but it certainly seems to apply here.