We should irrigate charter school deserts. Here's how.

Getty Images/GaryKavanagh

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2016–17 was one of the slowest-growth years for charter schools in recent memory. Whereas the Race to the Top era usually saw an annual net gain of 360–380 more charters, by 2016–17 that increase dropped to roughly 120. Nobody knows for sure why this happened, but one hypothesis is saturation: With charters enjoying market share of over 20 percent in some three dozen cities, perhaps school supply is starting to meet parental demand, making new charters less necessary and harder to launch.[i] If so, perhaps it’s time to look for new frontiers.

One option is to launch more charter schools in affluent communities. This would not only provide opportunities for sector growth, but would also broaden the political base for these schools of choice. Fordham senior visiting fellow Derrell Bradford candidly assessed the risk associated with today’s relatively narrow base: “Our [charter sector’s] anchor constituency is black and Hispanic families who don’t vote in the same numbers or contribute the same dollars as, say, the affluent Nassau County moms who typify the opt-out movement.”

We understand the political logic and surely support efforts to expand charters wherever they might satisfy parental demand. But we couldn’t help but wonder: Are we overlooking neighborhoods in America that are already home to plenty of poor kids, and contain the population density necessary to make school choice work? Especially communities in the inner-ring suburbs of flourishing cities, which are increasingly becoming magnets for poor and working-class families priced out of gentrifying areas?

This dynamic—labeled the “Great Inversion” by Alan Ehrenhalt, a senior contributing editor for Governing Magazine—is familiar to those of us living in Washington and other booming cities. The District of Columbia is home to a thriving, high-quality charter sector that has benefited from supportive public policies and ample private philanthropy. That’s all well and good—but the city’s affluence has put it out of reach of many poor and working-class families. The District is home to roughly 37,000 poor children and 120 charter schools. Yet neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland, has many more low-income students—some 55,202 of them, a 50 percent increase—and exactly zero charter schools. And in chronically low-performing Prince George’s County, Maryland, there are 81,055 low-income students, but just eleven charter schools.

The inner suburbs of Washington, D.C. are awash in poor kids, but they’re charter deserts—causing us to wonder whether this is common in other places as well. (Maryland and Virginia, as is well known, have been charter-averse at the political and policy levels.)

As the geography of poverty in America changes, are there many neighborhoods with plenty of population density and lots of disadvantaged kids but few or no charter schools? Or do the schools actually set up shop where poor families live—whether in cities, small towns, or the suburbs?

Those are the questions that Fordham’s new report, Charter School Deserts: High-Poverty Neighborhoods with Limited Educational Options, and its accompanying website address. The report analyzes the distribution of charter elementary schools across the country to provide parents, policymakers, and educators with information about which high- and medium-poverty communities do not have access to charter schools today. These groups can use our findings to better understand the supply of schooling options in their states and cities and perhaps press for changes that would improve that supply. Likewise, charter operators and authorizers will find the data helpful as they consider where to establish new schools.

To conduct the study, we recruited Andrew Saultz, Assistant Professor at Miami University, whose primary area of research is school quality and accountability. Dr. Saultz previously studied factors related to charter openings in New York City, as well as where charter schools are located in Ohio relative to that state’s demographics. He was keen to expand the latter study and recruited a trio of talented graduate students, Queenstar Mensa-Bonsu, Christopher Yaluma, and James Hodges, to help with the mammoth task.

Since distance from home is a key factor in families’ school selections, particularly at the elementary level, Saultz and his team defined “charter school deserts” as areas of three or more contiguous census tracts with moderate or high poverty and no charter elementary schools.[ii] They also show where elementary schools are located relative to census data on poverty, mapping every traditional district and charter elementary school in the country using geographic information system (GIS) software.[iii] Their results highlight patterns of charter location for each state and what that means for how these schools are ultimately distributed.

As expected, they find that most charter schools are overwhelmingly located in large metropolitan areas. Yet almost all states with charter school laws also have deserts; specifically, thirty-nine of forty- two charter states have at least one desert each—and the average number of deserts per state is a worrying 10.8.

Six states have no more than two deserts: Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Wyoming.[iv] Yet twelve other states have more than fifteen apiece: California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Make no mistake, that’s a lot of deserts—and particularly surprising in many of the latter states that are home to lots of charter schools.

The number of census tracts that comprise states varies greatly, however, so it’s helpful to look also at what proportion of a state’s high- to mid-poverty tracts are charter deserts. In seven states, it’s more than 30 percent (Alaska, Delaware, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, Rhode Island, and South Carolina), but in seven others, it’s less than 10 percent (California, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, and New Hampshire).

To be sure, readers should consider these findings with some caution. They are approximate due to several reasons: the shape or positioning of some contiguous census tracts on a map means that deserts could in fact be “drawn” differently; some areas meet the definition of a charter desert not because they lack charter schools but because they lack inhabitants, meaning they are literal deserts, or otherwise barren (for example, central Alaska); and still other areas have few charter schools yet miss the cut-off for high-poverty status. Still, a quick look at the interactive map shows that charter school deserts  can appear anywhere. In fact, analysts find that, on average, states have 7.7 charter school deserts in urban areas and 3.1 in rural areas.

We draw two key takeaways from these findings.

First, the charter sector needs to move beyond city boundaries. Many poor families are moving— or getting pushed out—to the suburbs. Chalkbeat recently published a piece titled, “As low-income families exit Denver, charter network KIPP is looking to follow.” It chronicled how gentrification in Denver is pushing low-income families to the surrounding suburbs, and reported that KIPP is considering following them there. Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado, said the network’s leaders “believe there is need beyond what is going on in Denver.”

The “need beyond” is not unique to Denver. This study documents charter deserts not only in cities, but in inner-ring suburbs and rural areas too, which means that we are palpably failing to locate schools where the greatest need exists. That’s not to say that middle class and more affluent families can’t or shouldn’t benefit from charter schools, nor does it negate the potential benefit to the charter movement of including more such families in our coalition. Our immediate point is simply to urge charter management organizations, other school operators, and philanthropies and organizations that boost, assist, encourage, and study charters to widen their gaze and consider opening schools in places that haven’t yet been on their radar but whose residents need more options.

Second, we must address the policy and practical barriers in some states that keep charter schools from locating where they are needed.

We already noted the challenge of political resistance in the states surrounding Washington, D.C. Recently, Robin Lake and her colleagues at the Center for Reinventing Public Education dug into the barriers that impede charter growth, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area. The rising cost of doing business, a dearth of school facilities, and funder preference for particular locales were a few obstacles they cited. Yet, when these colossal hurdles collide with the Great Inversion’s funneling of low-income urban families into the suburbs, they thwart new charter schools. As Lake et al. explained:

Operators are finding it easy to access philanthropic funding in urban Oakland and San Francisco, but see those places as “over-saturated” and gentrifying. By contrast, in the less urban area of western Contra Costa County, there are more available facilities and a growing population of students that match most charter schools’ target populations—but fewer opportunities to access philanthropic dollars to start up new schools.

In short, if needy families and available facilities are increasing in numbers outside the city, so should the number of philanthropists willing to support them there.

But philanthropists, operators, and educators can’t forge new paths alone; they need their policymaking brethren in elected and appointed offices to adopt more supportive school choice policies. The current report provides several examples of states that restrict the number, expansion rate, and/or location of charter schools. Washington State, for instance, allows a total of forty charter schools statewide. Rhode Island permits just thirty-five. And Ohio limits charter openings to districts that the state considers “challenged.” Such policies stifle the creation and expansion of new schools in the numerous places that need them. Eliminating such policies should be high on reformers’ priority lists.

Our results suggest that some inner-ring suburbs and small towns are prime locales for rekindling charter growth. But that’ll only happen if funders, operators, and state and local policymakers expand their horizons. What’s the first step? Simple. Read this report and use our interactive map to locate your state, district, and neighborhood. Find the “charter deserts” nearby that contain sizable populations of needy kids who would benefit from the presence of more school options. Then roll up your sleeves and start irrigating.

[i] Of course, there are other possible explanations for reduced growth too—such as stronger quality control measures, more discerning authorizers, political backlash, and so on.

[ii] In some cases, charter school deserts may be identified differently based on how contiguous census tracts are positioned and how the circles that capture the deserts are drawn. In other words, the deserts are best viewed as visual approximations.

[iii] Analysts used school-level data from GreatSchools for 2014–15 since the database lacked information for nine states in the 2015–16 school year; consequently, schools that have opened and closed since 2015 are not present (or absent) in the analysis.

[iv] Note that some states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, have very few census tracts with 20 percent or more of their population living at or below the poverty line, thus not meeting our definition of charter school desert—despite the fact that they have very few charter schools. Hawaii is also a special case since its geography does not align well with our method of identifying charter school deserts (its population is distributed across several islands versus “contiguous census tracts”).


Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.