Defining the Conversation: A Glossary on Integration, Choice, and Quality
The words we use in this conversation matter—and so does a shared understanding. This glossary explores key terms and phrases.
Ultimately, a high-quality school is one that supports academic excellence while creating a safe, supportive, and affirming environment. All families want access to good schools, but place different priority on different qualities. Families may look at multiple measures of school quality, such as: rigorous and relevant curriculum; teacher experience and diversity; outcomes like academic proficiency, academic progress, and graduation rates; school climate as measured by suspension rates, student surveys, and personal observations; access to a well-rounded experience; and more.
School choice means giving parents the power to choose the educational setting where they believe their children will thrive. Parents exercise school choice in many ways—most commonly by choosing their neighborhood school. Other forms of school choice include private schools, magnet schools, charter schools, open enrollment, and homeschooling.
Wealthier families have the greatest access to school choice, often buying homes in districts with the best reputation, paying for private school, or successfully navigating complex school application and enrollment systems. More recently, states have pursued policies to increase access to choice for lower-income families. Many charter schools, for example, are designed explicitly to serve the needs of low-income students of color who have historically had the least access to choice.
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are governed by independent boards rather than traditional school districts. This gives them more flexibility to innovate and build tailored programming, though they are still subject to key state laws related to accountability and open access. In Minnesota, charter schools serve 6.7% of K-12 students, with the following make-up:
- 54% low-income students (vs. 37% statewide)
- 20% English learners (vs. 8% statewide)
- 60% students of color and indigenous students (vs. 34% statewide)
- 13% special education students (vs. 16% statewide)
It’s not uncommon to hear critiques of—and myths about—charter schools, including the idea that they privatize, segregate, or “cream” students. These ideas point to an ongoing tension in the fight for education equity, where some believe that we should focus on improvements within the district school model rather than innovations that might compete. In terms of outcomes, just like in districts, there are some great charter schools and some falling woefully short. While on the whole, charters tend to show better outcomes for low-income, urban students of color, we must address all schools that are not producing positive outcomes for their students.
Our nation has a troubling history of school segregation, with the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling ending de jure school segregation in 1954. In some places, desegregation happened in name only, and in others, interventions like busing were implemented to proactively integrate schools. Today, however, many schools remain racially identifiable as a result of both residential segregation and ongoing state and local policies related to zoning, placement, and more, that impede equitable access both to specific schools AND to the resources within them.
Not all racially identifiable schools should be defined as segregated, however. There is a significant difference between schools segregated by state action and culturally-affirming schools of choice. The fight to desegregate schools was about gaining access to opportunities and resources for students of color, not just demographics. While many families of color seek demographically diverse schools, others are actively choosing schools specifically designed to serve students of color. This is a form of agency and affirmation, not segregation.
To be truly integrated, a school must have more than demographic diversity. Students must also have equitable access to resources within the school, affirming experiences, and outcomes that demonstrate high expectations for all. Across the U.S., racially and ethnically diverse schools remain rare. While there’s little question that schools with mostly white students have increased access to resources, simply giving students of color access to these schools does not ensure a quality experience. Children of color have limitless potential, and integration doesn’t unlock it—it’s already there.