Research & Commentary: New Report Details the Prevalence of ‘Charter School Deserts’

Published May 11, 2018

A new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute details what it calls “charter school deserts” and how certain high-need neighborhoods, particularly low-income suburban and rural areas, are being underserved by charter operators, thanks in part to policies that bar their entry or make opening a school onerous.

In Charter School Deserts: High-Poverty Neighborhoods with Limited Educational Options, a team of researchers from Miami University determine that 39 of the 42 states that allow charter schools have at least one “charter desert,” which they describe as “three or more contiguous census tracts with poverty rates over 20 percent but that have no charter elementary schools.” (Of course, the other eight states that don’t allow charters can be considered their own giant deserts.) On average, these states have 10.8 deserts.

Twelve states—California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas—have more than 15 deserts. Another seven states—Alaska, Delaware, Georgia, and South Carolina again, Mississippi, Nevada, Rhode Island—have more than 30 percent of their “high- to mid-poverty” census tracts as charter deserts. (The Heartland Institute’s home state of Illinois, for example, with a population just shy of 13 million, has only 67 charter elementary schools located throughout the entire state, mostly in Chicago. The study lists 14 charter deserts in the Land of Lincoln, “representing 21 percent of mid- to high-poverty census tracts.”)

To remedy this situation, the authors suggest charter operators “widen access to school choice in urban communities but also in the inner-ring suburbs, smaller cities, towns, and even rural areas.”

“There is plenty of room for charter schools to grow,” they note, “if [charter operators] are willing to go beyond the saturated cities. This means that charter operators, authorizers, and the philanthropies and organizations that support and study them must focus not only on the places where charters are already familiar, but also widen their gaze and consider other places that need such schools, but haven’t been on their radar.”

At the same time, state and local policymakers need to relax laws and policies that limit charter operations. “For example, Illinois law limits the number of charter schools in the state to 120 and imposes a maximum of seventy-five charter schools in Chicago,” the authors wrote. “Rhode Island permits just thirty-five charter schools statewide, and Ohio mandates that charters open only in those school districts considered ‘challenged’ by the state. Such policies stifle the creation of schooling options in many places that need them.”

Lastly, policymakers need to undo unequal funding formulas, which have caused charter schools nationwide to operate at two-thirds of the per-pupil funding level received by traditional public schools.

While the policy solutions the authors put forward are all necessary and would be welcome, universal private school choice in the form of vouchers or education savings accounts would be preferable, as the gold-standard empirical evidence shows. Still, charter schools should have their place. Nationally, they have provided a way out of failing traditional public schools for nearly three million children, and they provide competition for a bloated, sclerotic, unaccountable union-run public school system. This competition helps improve outcomes not just for the children who take advantage of school choice programs, but also for those who remain in their neighborhood public schools.

A child’s school should not be determined by his ZIP code. All parents, regardless of income or neighborhood, should be allowed to ensure their children have the opportunity to attend an effective school.

The following documents provide more information about charter schools and school choice.

Charter School Deserts: High-Poverty Neighborhoods with Limited Educational Options
This Fordham Institute report defines “charter school deserts” as areas of three or more contiguous census tracts with moderate or high poverty and no charter elementary schools. The report’s authors found 39 of 42 charter states have at least one desert each, with the average number of deserts per state at 10.8. The authors suggest charter school operators need to look beyond city boundaries, to rural and suburban neighborhoods whose residents deserve more options. They also argue state and local policymakers should address the policy barriers that keep charters from locating where they are needed.

In Pursuit of the Common Good: The Spillover Effects of Charter Schools on Public School Students in New York City
This paper by Sarah A. Cordes of Temple University, published in Education Finance and Policy, analyzes the spillover effects of charter schools on traditional public school (TPS) students in New York City. The paper is among the first to estimate the impact of charter school co-location with TPS. Cordes found charter schools significantly increase TPS student performance in English language arts and math and decrease the probability of grade retention.

High School Closures in New York City: Impacts on Students’ Academic Outcomes, Attendance, and Mobility
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the NYC Department of Education implemented a set of large-scale and much-debated high school reforms, which included closing large, low-performing schools; opening new, small schools; and extending high school choice to students throughout the district. The school closure process was the most controversial of these efforts. Apart from the general sense school closures are painful, there was no rigorous assessment of their impact, so the Research Alliance (RA) undertook a study of the 29 low-performing high schools designated for closure in New York City between 2002 and 2008. RA found closing high schools produced meaningful benefits for future students, such as the middle schoolers who then had to choose a different high school. Many of these students ended up going to higher-performing schools than the closed ones, both in terms of the achievement and attendance of incoming students. “Post-closure” students’ outcomes improved significantly; the graduation rate for these students increased by 15 percentage points.

The Effect of Charter Schools on Student Achievement–on-student-achievement
On average, children attending charter elementary schools perform better in reading and math than those in traditional public schools, finds a University of Washington study of the highest-quality research available. Students at charter middle schools outperform their traditional counterparts in math. The study’s authors, economists Julian Betts and Emily Tang, reviewed 40 studies of charter school achievement that randomized students studied through lotteries and accounted for a student’s history of achievement using value-added comparisons, research considered the most rigorous by scientific standards.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

Protecting Students with Child Safety Accounts
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal ESA programs offer the most comprehensive range of educational choices to parents; describes the six ESA programs currently in operation; and reviews possible state-level constitutional challenges to ESA programs.

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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