Addressing inequities in a cartographic age

Getty Images/Trifonov_Evgeniy

Anna Egalite

In June 2003, the Library of Congress completed its $10 million purchase of the only known copy of the 1507 world map by Martin Waldseemüller, making it the most expensive map ever purchased. Considered a milestone in cartography, Waldseemüller’s map is the first work of any kind to depict the New World as a separate continent, which he named “America” in recognition of the Italian sailor who documented his travels there in colorful detail, Amerigo Vespucci. “America’s birth certificate” signaled a significant shift in how Europeans viewed the world and understood their place in it.

Of course, today, it’s easy to overlook the many ways cartography enhances our daily lives. Our maps are digital, connected to satellites in space that beam directions directly to the device in our hand so that, even in a foreign country, the disembodied voice of a digital assistant guarantees we will not feel disoriented.

The accessibility and prevalence of modern-day GPS doesn’t diminish the power of maps, however, which have always represented more than simple navigation aids. Maps tell stories, they reflect our values and priorities, they can be empowering, and they can identify disparities. That latter quality is what has caught my attention lately.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently launched a map as part of its report, Charter School Deserts: High-Poverty Neighborhoods with Limited Educational Options. It defines a “charter desert” as a census tract with a poverty rate that’s greater than 20 percent and no charter schools. As I see it, there are two stakeholder groups that can immediately benefit from Fordham’s map.

The first group is education-oriented policymakers who are seeking to effect change where it’s most needed. As anyone who works in public policy can attest, resources are limited, so there are often tough decisions to be made about where to concentrate investments so as to maximize the impact for those who are most in need of assistance.

Consider this thought exercise a policymaker might conduct to identify those geographic areas with the most educationally disadvantaged children in the U.S.:

  • Start by plotting all the public schools in the country on a map, then remove the census tracts with high-performing public schools.
  • Next, remove the wealthiest census tracts. The rationale for this exclusion is that students living in these areas are likely to have access to the financial resources necessary to support private schooling if the public school option is under-performing. For better or worse, this fact is especially true now that parents have access to tax-advantaged 529 education savings accounts that incentivize them to save for K–12 private school tuition.
  • As a final step, remove those census tracts with lots of charter school options. Even if the local traditional public schools are under-performing and some of the charter schools are similarly ineffective, the diversity and density of school competitors increases the likelihood that there will be at least one high-quality option available to children in that neighborhood.  

What you’re left with are census tracts with relatively high poverty and no charter schools. These are the areas flagged by Fordham’s charter deserts map, and this is where education reform is likely urgently needed.

I recognize that this exercise is imperfect. For instance, I haven’t accounted for private school choice options, such as Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program or North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, but the number of children who actually participate in voucher or tax credit scholarship programs like these is relatively small: less than 1 percent of the 51 million children in elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. Thus, these tracts represent the areas where education-oriented policymakers should be focusing their energy.

What might charter-desert reform look like? A charter school board might be permitted to offer concessions for those leaders aspiring to locate in a charter desert, for example, such as waiving the charter school application fee (which is $1,000 in North Carolina), or facilities grant programs might prioritize applications from schools aspiring to open in charter deserts.

The second stakeholder group that I believe can benefit from Fordham’s map is parents. How do families identify the “good” schools in a community? Many ask their neighbors, they talk to colleagues with school-aged children, they might place their trust in what is familiar by selecting the school they attended themselves, or they might check if the school they are considering has a website or Facebook page. But these methods are terribly inefficient. What if very few people in your social network are parents? What if you work from home and thus have fewer opportunities for water-cooler chat with colleagues? What if you don’t have a computer? States have taken steps in recent years to improve information access for parents by designing informative school brochures and generating school and district report cards. A website such as the charter deserts page—which has information on both traditional public and charter school performance—is one more tool for parents to add to their arsenal. It provides consistent information both within and between states, and it’s just as useful to the parent who’s new to town as it is to the parent for whom three generations of family members have attended the school down the street.

Math and English language arts proficiency data are imperfect metrics, yes. This information should be supplemented with what families can glean from actually touring a school in person: observations about school culture; how teachers and school leaders encourage the development of students’ non-cognitive skills; and whether long-term attainment goals, like high school graduation and college enrollment are emphasized. Nonetheless, it’s a helpful first data point, and that’s something we should celebrate.

Martin Waldseemüller’s atlas served as a wake-up call about our place in the world. Modern day maps should be leveraged to do something equally transformative. After all, the first step to improving conditions for the most disadvantaged among us is to pay attention to where they currently stand.

Anna J. Egalite is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at North Carolina State University.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.