Educational researcher examines forces driving demand for charter schools

Map of New York City. Shown as data points on the map are 2010-2013 Charters, Prior Charters, Bottom 20% of Average Satisfaction, Middle 60% of Average Satisfaction, and Top 20% of Average Satisfaction. There are three obvious clusters of "Bottom 20%" data points that contain very few "2010-2013 Charters" data points and very few "Prior Charters" data points, indicating that there is little correlation between parental dissatisfaction and charter school location. Text: Legend. 2010-2013 Charters. Prior Charters. Avg. Satisfaction (1Q). Bottom 20%. Middle 60%. Top 20%.

In their analysis, Saultz and his colleagues found little correlation between parental dissatisfaction and new charter openings, as this map shows.

Economic principles of supply and demand suggest that charter schools would locate in areas where parents are not satisfied with their current schools. But new research by Miami University’s Andrew Saultz suggests that charters may not be responding primarily to parental satisfaction, at least in New York City.

Saultz, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, worked with two collaborators from Michigan State University to test assumptions about where new charters locate in New York City. New York City is an ideal location for this study because its Department of Education surveys parents annually to assess their satisfaction with local schools, and NYC has a thriving charter sector. Published in the September issue of the Journal of School Choice, the results of the study suggest that charter schools may be more focused on student achievement and student demographics than parental satisfaction when deciding where to start a new school.

By applying geographical information systems (GIS) data to data from the U.S. Census, the New York State Report Card, and New York City Department of Education parent surveys, the researchers were able to map out correlations between three assumed drivers of charter school demand – high poverty rates, low academic performance, and high levels of parental dissatisfaction – and the actual location of existing and newly opened charter schools.

Saultz and his team found that only low academic performance was strongly associated with new charter schools opening in an area. Meanwhile, high poverty rates were weakly associated with new charter school openings. Parental dissatisfaction seemed to have little, if any, effect on where new charter schools chose to locate.

The researchers expected to find that parental dissatisfaction heavily influenced charter school location. “Educational leaders are really interested in what parents think,“ Saultz says. So finding that parental dissatisfaction is not a factor “might mean charter school officials don’t access the data. It might mean that other factors are higher priority for them. We don’t know.”

Saultz suspects the answer might transcend economic theory. “I think a lot of people that go into opening charter schools are very mission-driven,” he says. “They want to improve performance, and they are intentionally locating in high-poverty, low-performance areas because those are the people they want to serve.”

That makes sense in New York City, where a charter school receives the same amount of money per student, regardless of its location. Under such a funding model, there is little conflict between mission and economic reality. If anything, locating in an economically depressed area might actually be the better fiscal choice. A charter school receives no public money upfront to support building or site acquisition. Those costs can be high in a real estate market as expensive as New York’s.

“I think one part of this story is that you can’t just magically place a school anywhere. As you think about percent poverty in an area, real estate is most likely cheaper there as well. And so, in addition to mission, there might be some kind of practical reasons charter schools are locating where they are,” Saultz says.

But Saultz is not content with conjecture. “The next thing we need to do,” he says, “is go in and talk with people who’ve opened charters to find out what data they look at and what their priorities are as they make that decision about where to locate.”

As charter schools increasingly become part of public school reform plans, that information will surely prove valuable in informing educational policy.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Parental satisfaction with traditional public schools and new charters figure by Andrew Saultz, Dan Fitzpatrick & Rebecca Jacobsen, used with permission of the authors. Image of Tweed Courthouse (home of the NYC Department of Education) via Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain.

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