It's time for charters to bloom in new places

Getty Images/Hotaik Sung

Sam Duell

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute published a geographical analysis and interactive website recently that shows the saturation (or lack) of charter elementary schools in socio-economically disadvantaged areas. The report identifies geographic locations with both high rates of poverty and no charter elementary schools, giving them the title of “charter school deserts.” According to Fordham’s analysis, there are over 500 charter deserts across 39 states. This is a thought-provoking analysis that deserves attention.

First, let’s discuss what this analysis is and what it’s not. “Charter School Deserts: High-Poverty Neighborhoods with Limited Educational Options,” answers three basic questions:

  • Where are charter elementary schools located?
  • Where are there concentrations of poverty according U.S. Census data?
  • How do these two areas overlap?

Assuming that families with lower incomes need more educational options, the analysis clearly indicates that America has work to do. With an average of 10.8 charter deserts per state, we can also assume that charter schools have room to grow while serving economically disadvantaged populations. The analysis and interactive website are tools for communities across the country to understand which neighborhoods might want new educational opportunities.

Fordham is clear about the limitations of the report. It’s not claiming that charter schools are just for poor students, and it’s not claiming that quality and poverty are necessarily and invariably inversely correlated. In fact, the authors clearly indicate that they do not address school quality and stipulate that charters vary in size, purpose and geography. So, the analysis does not declare that by introducing charters to poor neighborhoods educational outcomes will improve, rather the report simply identifies and quantifies the fact that many poor neighborhoods across the U.S. don’t possess charter school options.

Second, let’s talk about maps. Maps are cool, especially when they help us see familiar geographies from different perspectives. They’re made for specific purposes, and it is critical to appropriately align the kind of map with its intended purpose. For example, I wouldn’t use a topographical map to determine which interstate highway I should take, and I wouldn’t use a road atlas to navigate a sailboat across an ocean. Fordham and the authors of this work have created a visual representation that aligns the geography of poverty in relation to the proximity of charter elementary schools. Their work has a narrow function and, like with any map, is best utilized when it’s used for that intended purpose.

Finally, though the analysis has a narrow function and a wide scope, it reminds me that some very basic charter principles that might be worth revisiting.

  • Charters exist for many reasons, and those reasons are best understood by the communities in which the schools reside and by the families who choose to attend them. Should charters serve students from poor families? Yes, if those families want the charter. But let’s remember, charters should exist for any community that wants them.
  • Charters are a diverse set. They vary in size, structure, educational philosophy, curriculum, personnel and efficacy. Some charters are unionized, some are not. Some charters have longer school days, some keep similar schedules to district schools. Some charters focus on STEM, while others focus on the fine arts. Some charters predominantly serve children from middle-income families, while other mainly serve students from low-income families. There are charters operated by large non-profits, and there are charters that are founded and run by teachers. Some charters serve students very well, and others don’t.
  • Charter schools are public schools, not only in the way they are funded but also in the way they are defined according to statute and in the role they play in a functional democracy. Nearly every charter school law explicitly defines charter schools as public schools. And nearly every charter school requires the support of the community in order to start serving students. The majority of charter schools are authorized and governed by local school districts who oversee and monitor charter school compliance and effectiveness. The basic principle of a charter school is a handshake, an agreement between those that form the charter and those that oversee it—that in exchange for some flexibility, the school will be held accountable.

Sam Duell is the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Editor’s note: The article originally appeared in a slightly different form on the blog of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

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