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Perspective | Teacher diversity: Another charter school advantage in North Carolina

It might feel like eons ago, but in December, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order creating a task force to investigate how to diversify North Carolina’s teaching profession. It’s a reminder that, while we all yearn to get back to some sense of normalcy, we don’t want our schools to return to the old status quo once the pandemic passes. We want to build back better and stronger — and that includes recruiting more educators who share similar life experiences as their students.

Over the past decade, research has established that many students of color benefit from having at least one teacher who shares their background. Even for those of us who wish for a more “colorblind” society, the evidence is compelling that black and Hispanic students attend school more regularly, receive fewer suspensions, learn more, and are more likely to graduate when they experience having a teacher from the same race or ethnicity.

As recently reported, 80% of public school teachers in North Carolina are white. Yet research from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where I serve as president, recently found that diverse teaching corps were much more prevalent in North Carolina’s charter schools. As a result, students of color in the state’s charter schools are substantially more likely to have a teacher from the same ethnic or racial background.

Our study, authored by American University’s Seth Gershenson, finds that while charters and traditional public schools in North Carolina serve a similar proportion of black students, charter schools have about 35 percent more black teachers. As a consequence, black students in charter schools are about 50% more likely to have had at least one black teacher than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

And this isn’t just true for North Carolina. Data from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that charter schools employ a substantially more diverse teacher workforce nationally — even more diverse than you’d expect given that charters tend to serve more students of color than traditional public schools do.

The success of charters at attracting teachers from a variety of backgrounds may help explain some recent trends in public opinion on different types of schools. Although support for public charter schools had enjoyed broad, bipartisan support for decades, recent polls have shown that support weakening for some left-leaning voters. One by Democrats for Education Reform reported that just 37% of Democratic primary voters had a favorable view of charters. Yet for black and Hispanic Democrats, these numbers were 58% and 52%, respectively.

The reason for this robust support for charter schools among voters of color may be simply that these voters are more likely to have seen charters close up and to have personally experienced what a difference they can make in a place that once lacked educational options. Charters’ strength in recruiting more African American and Hispanic teachers may be another reason that voters of color support these schools.

North Carolina’s push to increase teacher diversity is a welcome development. As the state looks for ways to recruit more teachers of color, it can take lessons from the successes of its high-performing public charter schools.

Michael Petrilli

Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, executive editor of Education Next, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education Commission of the States.