Despite all the current rhetoric, it is important to remember that parents across the county are overwhelmingly supportive of public school choice. In fact, regardless of race/ethnicity, income, party affiliation, or geography – more than 70 percent of parents support public school choice. In 2017-18, more than 7,000 charter schools serve nearly 3.2 million students in 43 states, the District of Columbia (D.C.), and Guam. Last year, among districts with at least 10,000 total public school students, 19 districts had at least 30 percent of their students enrolled in charter schools and 208 districts had at least 10 percent of their students in charter schools. And yet charter school demand continues to outpace supply to the tune of 4.8 to 5.3 million students. Across the country, millions of students are still waiting for an opportunity to attend a better or different public school – a high-quality public school that meets their needs and inspires them to dream big. It should come as no surprise then, that the Fordham Institute’s latest report, Charter School Deserts: High-Poverty Neighborhoods with Limited Educational Options, details the existence and location of hundreds of charter school deserts across the county.
In order to define and identify charter school deserts, Fordham first looked at census tracts where at least 20 percent of residents were living in poverty. Fordham defined tracts with 20 to 40 percent of residents living in poverty as “mid-level poverty” and tracts with more than 40 percent of residents living in poverty as “high-level poverty.” In aggregate, charter schools have been particularly beneficial among low-income students. In fact, CREDO’s 2015 Urban Charter School Study found charter school students living in poverty gained 24 additional days of learning in math and 17 additional days in reading per year when compared to their district school peers and the gains were even larger for Black and Hispanic students living in poverty. In addition, Fordham limits their analysis to charter elementary schools stating that “parents are understandably hesitant to send young children long distances to attend school.” Fordham then defines a charter school desert as three consecutive census tracts with mid to high levels of poverty and no charter elementary schools.
Charter school supply growth has increasingly been constrained by a number of factors, including: facilities access, the talent pipeline (including founding groups, school leaders, and teachers), overall funding and funding equity, authorizer capacity and demand, union and political opposition, and limitations in state laws (including caps on charter growth). Fordham’s analysis did not set out to determine why these charter school deserts exist – but rather it set out to define a charter school desert and determine how many there were and where they were located. Fordham did not include states that have not passed a charter school law but instead limited their analysis to states that had at least one operating charter school in 2014-15. Across these 41 states and D.C., Fordham identified more than 400 charter school deserts.
While the Fordham analysis has some key limitations it is still extremely interesting and informative – and it has important implications for advocates, policymakers, operators, parents, and other stakeholders:
• In 2014-15, there were more than 400 charter school deserts located across the country.
• The average charter law state had 10.8 charter school deserts in 2014-15. Hawaii, Iowa, and New Hampshire did not have any charter school deserts while Ohio had 34.
• Twelve states had more than 15 charter school deserts: California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.
• In seven states, more than 30 percent of all census tracts with mid to high levels of poverty were part of a charter school desert: Alaska, Delaware, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.
• Approximately 70 percent of charter school deserts were located in urban areas and 30 percent were located in rural areas.
In a time period where charter school supply growth appears increasingly constrained and gentrification, urbanization, and economic change are all fundamentally altering the geographic dispersion of poverty in America – Fordham’s analysis had a number of important implications:
• Advocates, parents, and other stakeholders must continue to work together to address the factors that limit charter school supply growth.
• Even in urban areas with large numbers of charter schools, more intentional strategies may be needed to address existing charter school deserts and pockets of need.
• As gentrification, urbanization, and economic change increasingly push low-income families out of the urban core in popular cities, policymakers, funders, and charter school operators must increasingly focus their attention on semi-urban and suburban areas.
• Urbanization, economic change, and demographic change are also fundamentally changing rural America and new solutions will be needed to provide increased public school choice in rural areas.
• Access to reliable transportation, especially among low-income families, remains a key constraint to implementing robust systems of public school choice across urban, suburban, and rural areas.
The underlying causes of charter school deserts can vary significantly and require thoughtful interpretation. Accordingly, Fordham identifies five key limitations in their study design:
• Fordham’s study is not designed to “describe, analyze, or infer how state policies may impact [the] results, but to show which high-poverty areas lack charter schools, regardless of underlying causes or context.”
• Proximity is an appropriate and reasonable proxy for access but “nearby schools may not be available to families if they’re filled to capacity, and transportation may remain problematic, even to schools that are relatively close to home.”
• While census tracts have similar numbers of residents by design, their geographic size and population density can vary dramatically. As Fordham notes, “some of the areas we define as charter school deserts may be very thinly populated and lack enough families to support a competitive school choice market.”
• The study design does not address school quality and if “an area has a charter school, the area will not be considered a charter school desert, regardless of school quality.”
• Charter school deserts are visually identified, which means that there is some inherent subjectivity and human error in the identification process.
Overall, Fordham’s analysis supports the idea that—even after 25 years—there is still plenty of room for the charter school movement to grow. But urbanization, economic and demographic change, and supply constraints will require innovative and creative solutions, a broad and strong coalition of advocates and reformers, and intentional strategies to address existing and newly developing areas of need.
Kevin Hesla is the Director of Research and Evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.