Unequal access to charter schools in Ohio

By expanding access to options including charter schools, choice advocates hope that more students will reap the benefits of attending high-performing schools. But do all families have charter options in their area? In this study, researchers chart the Ohio landscape and seek to answer two questions: First, where are charter schools located with respect to the poverty and racial demographics of their community? Second, do low-income families have equal access to charter schools?

To answer these questions, researchers Andrew Saultz of the University of Miami and Christopher Yaluma of the Ohio State University (and a Fordham research intern this past summer) collected data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Ohio Department of Education. These data were then used to conduct analyses on the geographic locations of brick-and-mortar charters and the characteristics of their surrounding communities. For the purposes of this study, a family is said to have access to a charter school if they live within a five-mile radius of one.

Unsurprisingly for those who are familiar with Ohio, the majority of charters are located in large cities like Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton. This is almost certainly due to Ohio law, which restricts the opening of brick-and-mortar charters to certain—mostly urban—locations served by low-performing “challenged districts.” What is surprising, though, is that charters are less likely to locate in the very highest-poverty areas of these districts. This doesn’t mean that families in the toughest urban areas lack access—they generally live within five miles of a charter school, but their kids may have to travel farther to get there. On the other hand, families in poor rural areas are less likely to have access to a brick-and-mortar charter school.

The data also show that Ohio charters currently serve regions with higher than average proportions of black students, but the same is not true for Hispanic students. City-specific analyses indicate that charters do not locate in regions with the highest concentrations of black populations. For example, charters in Columbus tend to locate on the perimeter of the city rather than within the city center where the highest concentration of the city’s black families lives. Similar patterns can be seen in Cincinnati and Dayton. Meanwhile, a higher percentage of Ohio’s Hispanic population lives in rural areas, particularly in rural northwest Ohio—a fact that explains why Hispanic students are less likely to have access to charter schools. Unfortunately, not all Buckeye students are benefitting from equal access to brick-and-mortar charter schools. Because these charters are typically located in the largest metropolitan areas, there are several regions of the state, especially rural ones, with significant levels of poverty but no charter schools. To achieve truly equal access, the authors argue that Ohio policymakers should reconsider current state law, which restricts where charter schools are permitted to open their doors. On that point, we wholeheartedly agree—Ohio needs as many high-quality schools, charter or otherwise, as possible—as do other states, who ought to heed the lessons on this study.

SOURCE: Andrew Saultz and Christopher B. Yaluma, “Equal access? Analyzing charter location relative to demographics in Ohio,” Journal of School Choice (July 2017).

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.