A recent Fordham report highlights the country’s “charter school deserts,” which are contiguous high-poverty census tracts with no charter elementary schools. It finds that, in 2013–14, states with charters had an average of 10.8 deserts. That’s more than 450 nationwide—a rather overwhelming number that makes it difficult to focus on local challenges to charter expansion. We wanted to know which of these communities were most desperately in need of charters, so we searched for localities with large charter deserts, unusually deep poverty, or both. Using the report and its accompanying website (which uses 2018 data), we’ve identified twenty such places, which we discuss in more detail below. For each, we describe the current conditions of the charter school landscape, including what factors may deter charter school operators from opening in these areas of need.
Some of the communities we identify are in or around cities where state law has no provision for charters or where districts and local leaders are vehemently opposed to charters, while other cities we discuss have highly-rated state charter laws and already have many charter schools. They all nevertheless have sectors that meet our criteria. Even in cities with a wide variety of choice, most students still attend schools within a twenty-minute drive of their homes; students who live in charter deserts in cities with open enrollment and many charters can still suffer from the informal barrier of distance that keeps them from accessing quality choice options.
Many of these places face common barriers to the establishment of high-quality charter schools. Unequal funding was a challenge and disincentive to potential operators in most communities we examined. In at least one-third, charters did not receive separate facilities funding, potentially keeping them from the city’s poorest areas, where any available buildings may need significant repairs. Political tensions were another frequent barrier, especially in areas where charters rely on district school boards for both authorization and funding. School boards may deny applications to open or grow in size, or charter operators may simply avoid political climates they see as hostile. Active local resistance, found particularly in several of the Southern cities below, seems most likely when charters are seen as a state- or outsider-run threat to neighborhood schools.
Some of these issues can be addressed with improvements to charter legislation at the state level, while some will only be tackled if advocacy is organized within communities. But one first step available to most of these communities is for CMOs, advocates, authorizers, and policymakers to recognize where need is strongest when considering new charter school locations.
Click on a desert in the table below to read more.
Table 1. Twenty U.S. charter school deserts that are especially in need of charters
North Las Vegas, NV
The charter elementary schools in the Las Vegas metropolitan area are currently concentrated in the southern and western regions of the city. The neighboring city of North Las Vegas has almost none, despite having widespread poverty rates of over 30 percent, much higher than the rest of the Las Vegas area. According to the Kenny Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, a Las Vegas based nonprofit, funding disparities between district and charter schools are likely limiting charter growth. Charters don’t have access to separate facilities funding, which averaged $1,288 per pupil for district schools in 2016. And charters aren’t eligible for Nevada’s largest grant program, the Class Size Reduction Fund, closing off a major source of state funding. These funding restrictions may dissuade charters from locating in the areas with highest need.
Far Southeast and Far Southwest Sides of Chicago, IL
Chicago has a number of charter elementary schools, including many in high-poverty neighborhoods. But significant portions of the city—particularly in southern Chicago, known as the Far Southeast and Far Southwest Sides, where poverty rates climb as high as 59 percent—are still in desperate need of quality school options. These deserts are likely due to city policies directly aimed at curbing charter growth despite high demand; in 2014, for example, the charter school waitlist had 12,800 student names, though some may be duplicates. First, when Chicago closed a series of schools in 2013, it barred charter schools from buying these now unused facilities. More recently, the city agreed to a net charter growth rate of zero in negotiations with Chicago Teachers Union. These local actions are compounded by state charter laws, which limit charter schools’ access to equitable funding. This combination of anti-charter regulations is a clearly a deterrent to would-be charter operators in Chicago, leaving much of southern Chicago without charter schools.
Central Pittsburgh, PA
Central and southern Pittsburgh are both large charter deserts, but the situation in the former is more dire, with poverty rates as high as 76 percent, three times the city average. Recent revitalization efforts in the area have not included a charter elementary school, perhaps because of the city school board’s resistance to new charters, which stems largely from Pennsylvania’s funding formula. It requires a district whose students attend a charter in- or out-of-district to give that school the amount of money it budgets per student, regardless of the charter’s actual operating costs or outside funding sources. The 30 percent reimbursement the state used to provide was eliminated in 2011 as part of nearly $1 billion in cuts to education spending.
In 2013, Pittsburgh paid about 13 percent of its school budget to charter schools for student tuition, stressing the city’s education budget. This helps to explain why the Pittsburgh School Board accepted just two charter applications between 2008 and 2014. Its frequent denials are often overruled by the state, which tends only to increase tensions between the district and its charters. Even charter supporters have called the funding structure unsustainable and burdensome. Ronald Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, describes the system as “a major barrier to school districts welcoming charters as part of a public school menu and collaborating with them to maximize options.” That certainly seems true in Pittsburgh.
Inner Northwest and Southwest Quadrants of Rochester, NY
Rochester has a 32.8 percent poverty rate, which rises as high as 67.2 percent in the areas of its Northwest and Southwest Quadrants close to the city center. Its entire central area is devoid of charter elementary schools, even though there is clearly a strong demand for more quality options. Many Rochester-area charter schools have high waiting lists; one network’s has almost 2,000 names (some may be repeats).
The availability of real estate is a limiting factor, according to a report from the Northeast Charter Schools Network (NCSN) in fall of 2017. State law sets certain provisions for district support of charter facilities funding that apply only to New York City, leading to a funding disparity between district and charter schools that is significantly more severe in western New York, where schools do not receive state facilities funding. Finding and financing a suitable space in an urban area like central Rochester is a challenge, particularly as charters grow and needs change, notes the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. As the NCSN report explains, “Some schools with great vision will simply never open their doors because securing the capital and funding for a building is an insurmountable challenge."
Downtown Omaha, NE
Omaha has no elementary charter schools. The majority of downtown Omaha’s census tracts have poverty rates over 30 percent, leaving many poor students without quality public school options. But Nebraska doesn’t have a state charter schools law, so until it does, none will open.
Northern suburbs of St. Louis, MO
The St. Louis metro area has many charter elementary schools. However, almost all are located in the southern half of the city. This leaves the region north of downtown, which has poverty rates as high as 43.8 percent with few, if any, quality school options.
Two separate aspects of state law impede charter growth. First, in most districts, total charter enrollment can’t exceed 35 percent of public school students. As of the 2016–17 school year, 33 percent of St. Louis students were enrolled in charters, leaving little room for new charters to open.
Second, Missouri’s authorizing laws are very restrictive. According to the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri-based nonprofit, while various charter authorizers, such as universities, operate in Kansas City and St. Louis, doing so elsewhere is much more restricted; they “may only be authorized by the state board of education in provisionally accredited districts and by the local school board in accredited districts.” Because of these limitations, local school boards, which are often resistant to charters, are frequently the sole bodies authorized to approve charter school applications. So although the need for high-quality school options does not stop at city limits, Missouri law strongly discourages charter operators from opening in places such as the poor suburban communities north of St. Louis.
West Dayton, OH
Several charter elementary schools operate in north and central Dayton, but they are conspicuously absent in west Dayton, where poverty rates rise as high as 66.8 percent. Ohio law does restrict the opening of brick-and-mortar charters to “challenged districts,” but Dayton qualifies, and Ohio is generally considered friendly to charter startups. So why the absence in west Dayton?
A 2017 report from Andrew Saultz and Chris Yaluma on charter locations in Ohio notes that, although charters tend to locate in areas with higher-than-average percentages of minorities and higher-than-average poverty, they “seldom locate in tracts with the highest concentrations of poverty or percentages of Black population; they are more apt to locate in city centers.” Dayton also has extremely high rates of vacant housing—the highest in the nation in 2016—and the highest rates of vacancy are on its west side, which poses a safety concern to students, families, and school faculty. Ohio does not provide dedicated facilities resources to charter schools, and a 2017 survey found that many of the state’s charters are forced to use per-pupil revenue for purchasing, renovating, and maintaining facilities, all costs that increase if a school tries to adapt a disused building or operate in a neighborhood where increased security is a necessity. Charter schools may not make it to west Dayton without changes to funding and incentives to locate in the high-needs areas of the city.
Southwestern New Haven, CT
The New Haven area has only three elementary charter schools. High-poverty charter school deserts are located around the city, including the southwestern area, where the poverty rate is consistently over 40 percent. According to the Northeast Charter Schools Network, New Haven-area charters have a long waitlist, demonstrating parent and student enthusiasm for high-quality choice. But Connecticut’s funding process makes growth challenging, as the state Board of Education (BoE) must approve all increases in charter school size. Funding from the BoE is currently $11,000 per student, less than the amount provided for their peers in traditional public schools.
Additionally, Connecticut’s multi-stage charter approval and funding process may be a deterrent to new charters opening. First, a school must be approved either directly by the BoE as a state charter or by both a local board of education and the BoE as a local (and locally funded) charter. Second, after the state board has granted a certificate of approval, charters are not considered active until the Connecticut General Assembly appropriates funds for them. Because of these limitations, charters are often reliant on potentially resistant local boards of education for authorization, and a certificate of approval from the state board does not guarantee the school will open. The uncertainty and lower funding may discourage charter operators from opening in New Haven’s high-needs areas, despite demand.
Wichita, KS, metro area
Kansas allows charter schools and has no caps on their growth, but there are no charter schools in Wichita. The city is considered the seventh most unequal city in the country, and neighborhoods with 40 percent poverty abut those with less than 10 percent. And in 2017, state assessments showed that just under one in four Wichita students were on track to be college-ready in reading, and barely one in five in math. So why has the charter movement, with its potential for high-quality new options, not taken hold in Wichita?
One explanation is the weakness of Kansas state charter laws. Charters must be approved by both the local school district and the state board of education. Kansas offers less autonomy than typical charter laws; for example, charters are not exempt from state teacher certification requirements. There is also no state provision for charter school funding—it is completely at the discretion of districts, aside from one transportation-related provision. The reliance on school districts for authorization and funding appears to make Kansas, including Wichita, an uninviting prospect for many charter management organizations.
Robert Litan, Wichita resident and president of the charter advocacy organization Success for Kansas Students, writes that local advocacy is the first step. He encourages Kansans to ask their districts and the state legislature to increase charter authorizing options, adding, “Once these efforts are mounted, philanthropists will have incentives they do not now have to support the creation of charter schools.”
South and southeast Memphis, TN
Elementary charter schools are almost entirely concentrated in the central and northern parts of Memphis. This leaves much of the southern half of the city, many sections of which have poverty rates above 40 percent, without charter school options. Charter growth in these areas may be limited partially because of funding problems: charters receive 16 percent less public funding than district counterparts, and low property values in Memphis make it difficult for charters to finance needed building renovations, particularly in poor neighborhoods.
Charters operators looking to move to southern Memphis may also face political resistance. The state-created, state-run Achievement School District, which includes much of the city, has closed many schools and converted others into charter schools. This has created public resistance to continued upheaval. Green Dot, a CMO based in California, withdrew from opening a school in northern Memphis citing political concerns: “We felt we didn’t have the bandwidth to do the level of community outreach we were going to need to do given that this was in the media every week….We didn’t have the ground support to do it right, and to make sure that kids could get a great opportunity, or have a positive transition experience.” Together, the lack of funding and local antipathy may be enough to keep charters from opening, despite the need for school options in southern neighborhoods.
Downtown Louisville, KY
The Louisville metro area currently has no charter schools. Its overall poverty rate is 14.3 percent, but poverty is heavily concentrated in the downtown sector, where census tracts have rates as high as 84.5 percent. The lack of charter schools in these neighborhoods leaves the city’s poorest residents with few school options. These charter deserts exist largely because Kentucky didn’t have a state charter law until March 2017, so charters couldn’t operate. Since then, Louisville’s Jefferson County has begun to formalize policy to authorize charter schools, but none have opened. And the state did not include any spending for charter schools in its most recent budget, so operators are unlikely to open charters in Louisville until this funding uncertainty has been resolved.
Southern Newark, NJ
Charter elementary schools in Newark are concentrated in the downtown and northern sections of the city, leaving the southern parts with few school options. Much of this area has poverty rates above the city average of 29.1 percent, meaning that Newark’s poorest children do not have access to charter elementary schools. A 2015 report by Startup: Education (now the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) found that “children in neighborhoods with the highest demand for high-quality seats are traveling to charter schools far from their homes to reach the high-performing options. Most of the charter leaders…expressed a desire to go where they are needed, but cited the challenge of finding affordable and suitable facilities in those neighborhoods.” State law discourages Newark Public Schools from selling unused buildings, such as those in the city’s southern wards. District buildings, as well as others in these areas, also require expensive renovations, which are difficult for charters to afford because facilities funding comes out of their per-pupil operational budgets. Teachers Village, an urban renewal project, has incorporated three charter schools, but is located downtown, rather than in higher need areas. One ray of hope is that recent school board elections saw a large victory for charter supporters, just as the board is poised to regain control of the district. But local and state conditions still do not incentivize charter schools to locate in neighborhoods most in need of charters.
Southern and central Oklahoma City, OK
Oklahoma City has just five charter elementary schools, spread from north to south. Charter deserts cover much of the city, particularly the Inner City South area just above and below the Oklahoma River, where the poverty rate is as high as 68.1 percent. According to Chris Brewster, superintendent of the local charter network Santa Fe South Schools, charter schools are almost entirely reliant on non-public funding for facilities. “It is incredibly hard to get into facilities with no facilities dollars earmarked for charter schools,” Brewster explained. This lack of facilities funding makes opening new charters challenging, particularly in cities where available real estate suitable for a school is more difficult to locate and expensive than in other areas. And although charter schools are are guaranteed funding from the state, local municipalities are under no obligation to provide charters with district money. Together, these barriers to equitable funding are likely a strong deterrent for new charters considering operating in Oklahoma City’s neediest neighborhoods.
Little Rock, AR
Little Rock contains only a handful of charter elementary schools, and despite high levels of poverty throughout the city, just one of these is located in a high-poverty census tract. This means students in Little Rock most in need of quality school options—particularly in central areas of the city, where poverty rates rise to nearly 50 percent—don’t have access to charter schools in their neighborhoods. Charters are likely deterred from opening in Little Rock because they receive 38 percent less funding per student than district schools, with no charter funding coming from local sources. Charters also do not have access to facilities funding, crucial for opening new ones. And operators face a local political climate described in a recent report to the Arkansas Board of Education as “toxic.” Little Rock School District Superintendents have repeatedly expressed opposition to the board regarding new charter applications, citing declining city enrollments. Yet, with only two district schools designated as “achieving,” there is a clear need for more quality options for Little Rock’s economically disadvantaged students.
Southern Atlanta, GA
Atlanta has a number of charter elementary schools scattered throughout the metro area. However, southwestern Atlanta is one large charter desert.* Census tracts there have poverty rates as high as 61.2 percent, and traditional public elementary schools in the area report proficiency rates of under 20 percent in both math and English language arts.
Demand isn’t the problem. After a recent vote to raise the enrollment cap for KIPP Metro Atlanta, the largest charter management organization in the area, its Executive Director said that there’s “still great demand for KIPP schools and high-quality seats throughout our city, which is why we are committed to growth to meet that demand.” Yet there are no new charter elementary schools slated to open in southern parts of the city. Their much higher black populations may contribute to the scarcity of charters there, as there’s an ongoing debate over charters versus neighborhood schools among Atlanta’s black voters. When a referendum defeated the Georgia governor’s 2016 proposal that would have given the state power to take over failing neighborhood schools and pass them to charter operators, almost 70 percent of Atlanta voters in black majority precincts voted against it.
*The map above shows two elementary charter schools in East Point in the southwest sector of the Atlanta metro area, but those schools actually are in the Fulton County School District and not accessible to Atlanta City Schools residents in neighboring census tracts.
South Baltimore, MD
Baltimore’s charter elementary schools are predominantly concentrated in central and eastern parts of the city, while the South Baltimore area, where many census tracts have poverty rates above 40 percent, is almost entirely lacking charters. Charter operators may be deterred from entering the market in these areas due to an unfavorable regulatory environment. A recent report by the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation finds that, despite demand, charter management organizations are unlikely to expand to the city due to uncertain and inequitable funding and limited personnel autonomy. Funding is a particularly difficult issue for Baltimore charters; facilities funding is deducted from per-pupil dollars (a cost not incurred by district schools), and charters have to set budgets based on actual rather than average teacher salaries, making the process much more volatile than for district schools. In 2015, a group of charters sued the district, charging that these and other policies violated state law. This year the city’s proposed school budget would cut $5.5 million from Baltimore’s charter schools. Unless current state and local policies shift, many of the city’s most disadvantaged students will continue to lack quality school options.
Northern and eastern Houston, TX
Houston is home to many charter schools that together served 20 percent of Houston students in 2017. However, most of these schools are located in southern and western regions of the city. The northeastern section of the city, where poverty rates frequently rise above 30 percent, has few charter elementary schools, leaving many poor students without quality school options. Houston A+ Challenge, a local education nonprofit, noted in a recent report that, despite the successful scaling up of KIPP and YES Prep, Houston is struggling to meet local demand. “But one of the biggest challenges to charter growth in the Houston area remains: lack of access to facilities and facilities funding,” they explain. This barrier, the report states, is likely keeping other charter operators from entering Houston’s charter market. Houston A+ Challenge suggests that district and charter sectors should work to collaborate, including sharing district facilities, to provide better education choices to all Houston students.
Jackson, MS, metro area
Jackson, which has a citywide poverty rate of 30.7 percent, is the only area in the state that has opened charters since Mississippi’s charter law passed in 2013—but it’s only opened one charter elementary school. Some advocates blame the state’s rigorous application process, and there’s fierce opposition to charters within the community, particularly in Jackson, which may be slowing growth. The Southern Poverty Law Center and Jackson School District parents have sued the state, contending that Mississippi’s charter law violates the state constitution by unlawfully taking money away from district schools. A Hinds County judge agreed in February, but that decision is currently under appeal. Such forces are likely to further impede charter growth in Jackson and around the state for the foreseeable future.
Birmingham, AL, metro area
The Birmingham metropolitan area has no charter elementary schools. It has a poverty rate of 24.5 percent, making it one of the nation’s poorest cities, and includes some neighborhoods with rates as high as 64 percent. Despite the passage of Alabama’s charter law in 2015, no charters have successfully opened in Birmingham. This is likely caused by the authorizing provision of the law, under which only the state and local districts can authorize schools. This allows political opposition to heavily influence approval or rejection of charter applications, and the Birmingham Board of Education has unanimously denied every one it’s received. One charter school appealed the board’s rejection to the state authorizer, which approved the application, but Birmingham is now suing the Alabama Public Charter School Commission over the decision. This fierce local resistance is likely to dissuade charter operators looking to expand into Alabama from locating in Birmingham.
Downtown and Northside Richmond, VA
The city of Richmond has just one charter elementary school, so most of it is a charter desert. Its 25.4 percent poverty rate rises as high as 69.9 percent in the northern parts of downtown. While Virginia as a whole often scores relatively well on national assessments, The Washington Post editorial board described Richmond in 2017 as one of several Virginia cities “that have persistently failed to effectively educate their students, many of them minorities or disadvantaged.”
Richmond’s dearth of charter elementaries comes as no surprise; the state has only nine charters total, and its charter law has consistently been ranked as one of the worst by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Chris Braunlich, past president of the Virginia State Board of Education, explains that the state constitution gives local school boards complete control over education in their districts. He blames school board–designed conditions for making Virginia “an inhospitable state for quality charter operators,” and The Washington Post editorial board called the state “so unwelcoming that quality charter operators don’t even think about applying.” Lack of local advocacy has played a role too: The 74 Million notes that “There hasn’t been a large groundswell to push for a greater expansion of charters.” And in 2017, an attempt by the state legislature to create state authorizing districts was vetoed by the governor on constitutional grounds. Change in Richmond probably will not happen without state-level change or a drastic upswing in charter advocacy among local parents and citizens.