There is a growing body of research about the rise of the charter school movement within the American education system. However, little research has been done on why new charter schools open where they do and whether there are patterns to where those schools open. A new study by Michigan State University Associate Professor Rebecca Jacobsen, doctoral student Dan Fitzpatrick, and Assistant Professor Andrew Saultz of Miami University explores geographical factors regarding charter openings in New York City (NYC). Their study pays particular attention to possible connections between new charter openings and market force factors such as poor student achievement and low parent satisfaction levels in Traditional Public Schools (TPSs), along with poverty and density of students within neighborhoods.
The authors based their research on economic theory that suggests that the market will regulate the number of schools in an area and the types of schooling choices parents have. As the theory goes, the supply side–charter schools–will open schools in response to factors on the demand side–parents’ desire for schooling options for their children. Little previous research has investigated whether these dynamics are playing out as expected, however. As the authors note, “Understanding where new charter schools locate is important because policymakers are using school choice as a policy lever to improve school performance and ensure the availability of high-quality schools for all communities.”
In order to examine what factors might be influential in decisions about charter openings, the researchers looked at data from NYC schools. This city made for an ideal location for study because of its sizable and growing charter sector. As of the writing of this paper, NYC had recently raised cap on the number of charters, indicating the likelihood of new openings in the near future. Additionally, the NYC Department of Education conducts an annual parent survey, which includes questions about parent satisfaction with the education provided by their children’s schools.
The researchers specifically looked at factors that may have indicated demand using the geographical concepts of space and place. Space includes the tangible characteristics of an area, in this case quality of schools, the density of students, and poverty levels. Place refers to the perceptions of an area, in this case how parents rate schools on the parent satisfaction survey. Using the innovative mapping technique of geographic information system analysis, Saultz, Fitzpatrick, and Jacobsen assessed whether new school locations seem to correlate with these four space and place factors.
This analysis finds no evidence that charter schools are being opened in response to parental satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with existing options. In fact, areas with clusters of low parental satisfaction did not contain new charter schools. Density of school-age children does not appear to correlate with opening locations, either. Charter openings do seem to be responding to poor academic performance and possibly poverty. However, poverty alone does not appear to be the central factor in decision-making; if poverty has an influence, it does only in combination with low academic proficiency.
In light of this research, policymakers, charter authorizers, and charter operators should be clear about their goals for the expansion of charter schools. While their aim is to open up schooling options for families, and particularly those who are most in need of quality educational choices, this study makes clear that even when information about parental preferences is readily available, it is going unused. These findings are surprising considering the emphasis that school choice advocates put on market forces and consumer demand. The consumers have spoken. It would be wise for charter proponents to listen to what they have to say.
Oversight is a key responsibility here. Charter authorizers are charged with holding charter operators accountable for student outcomes, but this study demonstrates that authorizers are not doing all they can to provide educational choices for students who may need them the most. Lack of careful planning can result in a wasteful overlap of opportunity in some areas and a scarcity of choice in others, but charter authorizers have the power to require a defined strategy for the delivery of educational services by new charter schools. State-level policymakers should in turn hold authorizers accountable for the charters they grant and the planning that goes into applications for new charters. Although the charter school movement was designed to allow schools to operate more independently, it makes sense for states to ensure that authorizers take an active role in shaping the landscape of charter schools throughout their communities.