Learning deserts? Where charter schools aren't

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Robert Maranto

As a school board member, I lament that public education is all too partisan. 

Democrats and Republicans disagree on teacher salaries and benefits, school prayer, discipline, vouchers for poor students to attend private schools, sex education, arming teachers, gender-neutral bathrooms, and saluting the American flag, among other things.

Yet each party mainly likes charter schools.

A brainchild of reform Democrats like Bill Clinton, charter schools are public schools authorized by public bodies. They cannot impose religion, charge tuition, or discriminate in admission. Yet they are autonomous like private schools, chosen by parents, able to focus on a single mission like Montessori schooling, and often staffed by untenured teachers who principals can hold accountable.

In short, charter schools combine public school equity with private school flexibility and customer service. 

Two decades of research finds charter schools excelling on parent satisfaction and graduation rates. Overall results are mixed, but within low-income communities, charters typically show greater test scores gains than traditional public schools counterparts, and far greater success preparing disadvantaged students for college.

This fits with decades of common sense and research, summarized in the late Jeanne Chall’s classic The Academic Achievement Challenge. Chall and a range of other researchers find that, while middle class students do reasonably well in traditional public schools, most low-income students need more structured, teacher-centered learning. In low-income communities, charter schools like KIPP, Achievement First, and Success Schools provide that kind of culturally appropriate pedagogy. That’s why many low-income parents choose charters, and charters tend to locate in high-poverty, inner-city settings.

Further, though advantaged parents like me can move to a better school attendance zone or even run for school board like I did, low-income parents typically lack the money to move, and lack the time and clout to influence public school bureaucracies. If the local public schools are a bad fit, the disadvantaged are out of luck.

For those reasons, while disagreeing on private school vouchers, Democrats like Barack Obama and both Clintons and Republicans like George W. Bush and Donald Trump agree that public charter schools provide new opportunities for low-income parents to find what works for their kids. Each presidential administration increased funding to start charters.

But are charter schools located where needy students most need education alternatives? Washington, D.C.,’s 37,000 low-income children are served by over 120 charter schools, as well as district schools now improving to meet charter competition. In contrast, the 55,000 low-income children in neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland, have not a single charter to choose from.

Are such patterns common?

A new report from the Thomas Fordham Institute, Charter School Deserts: High-Poverty Neighborhoods with Limited Educational Options, offers some tentative answers.

A team of professors led by Miami University’s Andrew Saultz (full disclosure, Andrew is a friend) used geographic information system software to identify contiguous low-income census tracks in all fifty states lacking charter elementary schools, which they dub “charter school deserts.” You can look up findings for your state at Fordham’s website that accompanies the report.

Six states still lack charter schools: high-poverty Kentucky and West Virginia and low-poverty Montana, Vermont, and the Dakotas. Elsewhere, the percentage of high poverty areas without charters ranges from under 5 percent in California to most of Mississippi.

Some cities like Richmond, Virginia, have so few charter schools that virtually the entire metro area is a charter school desert. Others like Cincinnati, Ohio, have dozens of charter elementary schools, but those schools are geographically concentrated so that in practice few students can commute to them. Similarly, tiny Rhode Island has a decent number of charter schools for its size, but very few in high-poverty areas, so in practice half of low-income census tracks lack access to charter schools.

The authors recommend that policymakers and philanthropists focus less on building new charter schools in big cities where others already exist, and more on extending the reach of charters and other forms of school choice (like inter-district choice) into new, underserved high-poverty settings, such as inner-ring suburbs, and even some rural areas. Providing more equitable funding to charters, which typically get far less money than traditional public schools, could also help spread options.

Some high-poverty public school districts—Rogers, Arkansas, come to mind—do so well serving both rich and poor students that few additional options are needed. In general, though, the theme of Charter School Deserts is on target. Low-income Americans are underserved by public education; they need more schooling options for their kids.

When schools compete for parents, parents win—especially low-income parents. Spreading charter schools around can help make that happen.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the University of Arkansas, edits the Journal of School Choice, and proudly serves on his local school board, which provides a charter school option for parents.

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