Over the last two decades, US policymakers have embraced forms of privatisation and marketisation in hopes of fostering equitable access to quality educational options, particularly for disadvantaged children. Concerned about the chronic, inequitable outcomes in US public education, where a child's future school and socio-economic success is closely tied to his or her neighborhood, reformers highlight the economic-style “exit” option as the key to save children from under-performing state schools. As some advocates advance these reforms under a neoliberal logic of markets, the most prominent of these reforms, charter schools — publicly funded but privately managed schools — bring new profit-seeking and community-oriented schools into the publicly funded sector in the hopes that such schools can provide the educational opportunities that have been denied to too many in the state-run system. The question, then, is the degree to which these schools are living up to their potential to provide better quality options to disadvantaged communities.
In fact, a growing body of research indicates that many charter schools have avoided the possibility of providing quality educational options for poor communities. Interestingly, this is true not only for profit-maximizing charters schools, but also for many charter schools that were established with a specific social justice mission. While much of the explanation for such patterns focuses on parental preferences for socially segregated schooling over integration or academic quality, less attention has been paid to the role of schools themselves in exacerbating or ameliorating inequitable patterns of access, and especially the role of competitive incentives fostered by policy in guiding schools' organisational behavior in ways that often run counter to important equity considerations.
This paper reviews the extant empirical evidence on charter schools, focusing on school location, marketing efforts, and admissions practices in metropolitan areas with high levels of socioeconomic and racial segregation. Specifically, drawing from the economics of non-profit sectors, the analysis focuses on the organizational behavior of mission-oriented charter schools relative to the efforts of their profit-seeking competitors, and the equity implications for access for disadvantaged children. The findings indicate that, over time, competitive conditions fostered by policy cause many schools — including those established with a social justice ethos — to adopt practices that limit access for disadvantaged students. The concluding discussion considers the long-term potential of such reforms to promote social justice through more equitable admissions arrangements.