Bethlehem School Superintendent Joseph Roy spoke candidly about charters and race and expected he had struck a hornets’ nest. 

He said in a public forum, not for the first time, “that some parents send their kids to charters so they won’t have to go to school with “kids coming from poverty or kids with skin that doesn’t look like theirs.”

Roy is among many superintendents, including Allentown’s Thomas Parker, who are calling for state officials to overhaul the charter school system because of the cost to school districts, which pay tuition for students who enroll in charters.

The Bethlehem Area School District expects to spend more than $30 million this year. Allentown spends about twice as much. Statewide, districts sent $1.8 billion to charters in 2018.

I met with Roy to discuss charter school funding, public accountability and other topics that I may write more about later. He also opened up about the controversy.

It started with his comments at the news conference about why students attend charters. He offered several reasons, including bus transportation, longer school days, specific academic programs and uniform requirements. He also mentioned race.

“The honest fact is, not all, but some parents send their kids from urban districts to charters to avoid having their kids be with kids coming from poverty or kids with skin that doesn’t look like theirs,” Roy said.

Five days later, Saucon Valley School Board President Shamim Pakzad, who enrolls one of his sons in a charter school, called for Roy to resign, though he didn’t mention him by name.

“What they said was ugly, divisive and outside of the boundaries of human decency,” Pakzad said at a school board meeting.

Roy also got backlash from the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. Parents from several charters demanded an apology.

Others defended Roy, including Bethlehem’s school board and Bethlehem NAACP President Esther Lee. He said he received emails of support from district parents.

I asked Roy why he believes some people don’t want to talk about issues involving race.

“No one wants to be called or viewed as a racist,” he said. “That’s one of the worst things you can say. But then that is used as a defense mechanism to shut down any honest conversation about it.”

Charter schools have varying levels of diversity. Some are made up primarily of minority students, while others are overwhelmingly white. Income levels vary, too.

I was reminded of the time I spoke to the Florida School Boards Association a few years ago. I asked its executive director why students left public schools to attend charter schools. He bluntly said, “They don’t want to go to schools with kids who don’t look like them.”

School choice encourages segregation by race, social class, income, and religion. It takes determination and willpower to overcome segregation.