Since their inception in 1999, Buckeye charter schools have grown rapidly. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), Ohio had just over fifty-nine thousand charter students in 2004–05; ten years later, that number had more than doubled to 122,000 students, representing 7 percent of the public school population. These statistics demonstrate the impressive and sustained growth of the charter movement in Ohio; but where do most charters students live? Are they evenly distributed throughout the state or heavily concentrated in a few areas? Which cities have the largest charter “enrollment share,” and what areas of the state have very few charter students? Answers to these questions can help us identify opportunities for growth and partnership—and even make the case for policy change.
To conduct this analysis, I use the enrollment data from the state’s District Payment Reports (FY 2015: Final #3 payment). These reports display the number of charter students who live within the jurisdiction of each district (on a full-time equivalent basis), so we can count students by their districts of residence. This analysis of charter enrollment yields three main takeaways.
The majority of charter students live in urban areas
A slight majority of Ohio charter students (55 percent) live in Big Eight districts. In absolute numbers, the districts with the most charter students are Cleveland (17,924), Columbus (17,732), and Toledo (9,422). In Cincinnati and Dayton, 7,673 and 6,610 students avail themselves of the charter option respectively. An additional 18 percent of Ohio charter students come from the Big Eight’s suburban communities: When expanding the boundaries to a county level, state data reveal that 73 percent of Ohio charter students reside in the county of a Big Eight district (e.g., Franklin County for Columbus).
The concentration of charter students in urban areas is related to state law. Generally speaking, charters may only locate in academically “challenged” districts, which are mainly found in urban areas. (For more on the identification of such districts and the geographic restrictions on startup charters, see Revised Code 3314.02(A)(3)). Given that the majority of charter students come from urban communities, the demographics of charters are less advantaged than the state overall. CREDO’s 2014 study on Ohio charters reported that three in four charter students come from low-income families (compared to 45 percent statewide); such students are also disproportionately African American (45 percent versus 14 percent statewide). For these reasons, we at Fordham usually compare charter performance with Big Eight schools—which have much similar demographics—rather than to schools statewide. When proper comparisons are made, the results of charters track more closely with similarly situated districts.
Twenty-five districts have greater than 10 percent charter students
Chart 1 displays the districts with the highest percentage of charter students as a fraction of their overall public school student population. The chart shows that twenty-five districts have more than 10 percent charter students, and nine districts have more than 20 percent of students in a charter. Dayton, Toledo, and Cleveland lead the way at 29 percent each. Most of the non-Big Eight districts on the chart are located in the same counties as Big Eight districts. For example, Warrensville Heights, near Cleveland, is in Cuyahoga County. The exceptions are as follows: Lorain and Elyria (Lorain County), Mansfield (Richland), Portsmouth (Scioto), Middletown (Butler), and Pleasant (Marion).
A modest number of districts barely miss the 10 percent threshold—fourteen have a charter enrollment share between 8 and 10 percent. These include inner-ring suburban districts like South-Western (near Columbus) and Huber Heights (near Dayton), along with several poorer small town districts like Lima, Newark, Springfield (Clark County), and Zanesville. If charters continue to expand, we should expect a dozen or more districts to reach the 10 percent level within the next few years.
Chart 1: Ohio districts with more than 10 percent charter students – 2014–15
Most districts have a very small share of charter students
Once we leave urban communities, very few students attend charters. In fact, a majority of Ohio districts—364 out of 608—have less than 3 percent of their resident students attending charters. As Table 1 displays, most of these small charter school markets are located in rural, suburban, and small town areas. Generally speaking, their charter students attend a statewide online charter school or attend a “conversion” charter school sponsored by their local districts. The tiny fraction of charter students in non-urban communities can be traced to the state’s legal prohibitions on where startup charters can locate. It could be also explained by a lack of demand for non-district options, but one cannot be sure how families would respond unless state lawmakers allow entrants into these markets.
Table 1: Charter enrollment share by district typology – 2014–15
What are the implications of these data? Three thoughts:
First, as Chart 1 demonstrates, Ohio’s largest cities have large charter sectors. As a result, local and city leaders cannot ignore charter schools (or, worse, regard them with hostility). Rather, they should treat them as equals when it comes to funding, transportation, and facilities. Cities like Cleveland have begun to embrace cross-sector approaches to educating students, and other communities in Ohio should as well. At the end of the day, it should be about ensuring that every student, regardless of their choice of school, has the support necessary to be successful.
Second, although charter enrollment reaches almost 30 percent in a few cities, there is still much room for high-performing charters to grow. As our annual report card analyses have repeatedly shown, we need more excellent inner-city schools. To meet this need, civic and philanthropic leaders should aggressively support the expansion of exemplary charters such as Breakthrough, Dayton Early College Academy, KIPP Columbus, and the United Schools Network.
Third, opportunity awaits in the Buckeye State’s non-urban communities, home to very few charter students. To enable the development of new and innovative schools, Ohio lawmakers should remove the geographic cap on charters (most states have no geographic restrictions). In America, families can select from a variety of options in practically all areas of their lives—where to buy groceries, which physician to go to, where to bank, what home to buy, what church or synagogue to join. Why shouldn’t families everywhere have the freedom to choose from different schools? Ohio policy makers can increase school choice by eliminating the geographic restrictions on startup charters.
Although charter schools have been controversial in the Buckeye State, the enrollment data indicate that in locations where lawmakers have allowed charters to blossom, Buckeye families and students are taking advantage of this alternative. The imperative now is to ensure that all families—regardless of zip code—have access to worthy school choices.
 When summing the total number of public school students in a district, the large majority of students receiving a voucher are included. EdChoice, Autism, and Jon Peterson scholarship students are accounted for on the district payment report; however, only a portion of Cleveland voucher students are reported. Therefore, I use the Friedman Foundation’s enrollment count for Cleveland. EdChoice (low-income) students are not included, since they are not funded through the state foundation program; across the state, there are less than 7,500 students in the program, so their exclusion does not materially affect the analysis.
 The Big Eight districts are Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown.