America's Charter School Deserts


Welcome to America’s Charter School Deserts, an interactive map developed by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in partnership with Data-Visual.

This resource allows users to view information for every public elementary school in the country, including both charter schools and traditional public schools. It also highlights areas of relatively high poverty where there are no charter schools, what we are calling "charter school deserts," providing educators, charter operators, and policymakers with information about which needy communities have no ready access to charter schools. Users will note that some regions (including rural, mountain, park, and other areas) may lack the population to support charter schools.


The website uses 2010 census tract information from the U.S. Census Bureau and school-level data from the widely-respected school rating organization GreatSchools (hereafter GS). The GS database provides geolocation information (latitude and longitude) for all elementary schools, defined as those having any grade in the kindergarten through fifth-grade range. Data were downloaded from GS on March 1, 2018, yet all school openings and closings from the most recent years may not be reflected in those data nor consequently on the map.

We include schools even if some data are unavailable. For example, the GS data file does not include enrollment data for 90 percent of schools in Delaware nor math and ELA proficiency data for more than 40 percent of schools in South Dakota, Montana, and Alaska.

Readers should keep in mind several limitations as they interact with the website. First, we do not account for differences in state policy. Our purpose is not to describe, analyze, or infer how state policies may impact our results, but to show which high-poverty areas lack charter schools, regardless of underlying causes or context.

Second, although we focus on school locations, this factor alone is insufficient to ensure that families have viable access to schools. Proximity is simply a proxy for access, but nearby schools may not be available to families if they’re filled to capacity, and transportation remains problematic for many, even when schools are relatively close to home. Additionally, charters sometimes limit enrollment to children who reside in particular school districts or within other boundaries, hence proximity does not necessarily confer the right to enroll.

Third, although most census tracts are of similar size, some of the areas we define as charter school deserts may be very thinly populated and lack enough families to support a competitive school choice market (including rural, mountain, park, and other areas). In these places, virtual schools may be of service to families who must otherwise travel long distances to school. Still, because they are not place-based, we have excluded virtual schools from the site.

Fourth, we do not address school quality, either of charter schools or traditional public schools, when defining census tracts as charter school deserts. If an area has a charter school, the area will not be considered a charter school desert, regardless of school quality. To provide additional context about school quality, the website includes math and ELA proficiency data where available.

Last, but not least, in any mapping exercise of this magnitude, there are inevitable data issues which may result in misleading output. We encourage users to submit feedback to the Fordham Institute about these and related issues so that the map functioning may be improved by emailing [email protected].

For a detailed description of our website methodology, visit

To read the companion report, Charter School Deserts: High-Poverty Neighborhoods with Limited Educational Options, visit