New Analysis Maps K–12 Schooling ‘Deserts’ in Choice-Rich Indiana

The authors of our latest report—Indiana’s Schooling Deserts—used Geographic Information System software to map families’ drive times to traditional public, magnet, charter and voucher-participating private schools. That first-of-its-kind mapping allowed us to identify where three kinds of “schooling deserts” exist:

  • A-rated schooling deserts, meaning no A-rated schools of any kind are within a 30-minute drive of families in a given area
  • choice deserts, meaning no school options other than students’ zoned public school exist within a 30-minute drive of families
  • and educational opportunity zones, meaning families’ only option within a 30-minute drive radius is a D- or F-rated traditional public school.

You can learn more about our findings using the various resources below.

IN School Map - School Finder

IN Schooling Deserts



Our Podcast Transcribed

Drew Catt: Hello, I’m Drew Catt.

Mike Shaw:  And I’m Mike Shaw.

Drew Catt: And welcome back to EdChoice Chats. Today we’re discussing a new EdChoice report—Indiana’s Schooling Deserts: Identifying Hoosier Communities Lacking Highly Rated Schools or Multi-Sector Options—which we are excited to discuss today with Robert Enlow, EdChoice’s president and CEO.

Robert Enlow: Hi, thanks for having me.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, great to have you on, Robert.

Robert Enlow: Always good to be on our own podcast, EdChoice Chats. We love it.

Drew Catt: So before we get into this new research, let’s back up and talk about why we did it in the first place. So from my perspective, I was fresh out of graduate certificate program in Geographic Information Science and wanted to work on a project incorporating network analysis. So, I decided to look at drive times from schools in Indiana to see if there were any areas of the state without accessible choices. What excited you about this project, Robert and why is it relevant to folks ranging from parents to policy wonks?

Robert Enlow: Ladies and gentlemen, his reasoning is why we have such a great research team here at EdChoice. My motivation was really simple. I wanted to find out where Hoosiers had quality schools and where they were in the state compared to what the ed reform community thinks. There’s a lot of the folks who are in educational reform who think, “Hey, we need to have better schooling in this area because we think this is the right area for the right types of kid,” and those are great, and those are value judgments. They’re not judgments based on actual data, and so there’s nothing wrong with making a value judgment but let’s just recognize what it is, it’s a value judgment. And so, in the State of Indiana, I wanted to find out where are we making those value judgments about where we want to put schools and where should be put schools and do those things actually meld and match.

Mike Shaw: And Robert, how does that square with the idea that Indiana is a state of choices and of educational access? But we do see from the research and the maps, that is not the case uniformly.

Robert Enlow: So, it’s not the case uniformly, but the great news from to research that I can tell, is that Indiana’s way ahead of the game. In fact, that we’re actually having this conversation about where the deserts are in Indiana of options, and of quality, means we are so much further down the road than other states. So, if you think about having this conversation, I don’t know, in let’s say Kentucky, our neighbor to the south, or in Illinois, they’re not having these kinds of sophisticated conversations yet, because they don’t have the policy ecosystem to support the incredible number of options we have.

And so, on one hand, I’m really excited by the fact that we’re starting to have this conversation about, “Okay, where are the pockets of deserts and lack of quality, and how far people are?” This is fantastic. On the other hand, the question becomes, now that we know where some of those places are, which I’m sure you guys will tell us about, we need to figure out solutions. Because, we can’t have Hoosiers not being able to access higher quality schools.

Mike Shaw: So we’ll definitely talk about solutions and where the areas in Indiana are that do lack some of these schooling measures, but we’ll kind of back up a little further and talk about the research, and how we went about it. We used Geographic Information Systems, GIS software, to calculate drive times from highly rated schools, and these are rated by the Indiana Board of Education, using their assigned letter grade ratings, as well as choice schools. So, all charter, magnet and voucher-participating schools to determine these schooling deserts and their locations across the state.

While previous research looked at equating distance, which is as-the-crow-flies distance, around a particular area. We looked at how long it would take to commute one way to a school, using the existing roads and highways in the states, and their speed limits. We’d find a desert is any area that takes 30 minutes or more to drive to, from any school in the sample. For the most part, these deserts exist in the rural areas of the state, and we found all of K–8 students live within 45 minutes of any A-rated school, and all high school students live within 45 minutes of any A-rated school.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and overall, I’d say that is great news. However, there are still students in these deserts. There were 3,699 K–8 students, and almost double that, 6,668 high school students that live without reasonable access, and would have to commute 30 minutes or more, just to get to an A-rated school. However, we know that state-assigned ratings aren’t the end all, be all. Which is why we also wanted to look at access to any charter, magnet or voucher-accepting private school. And that’s when we see those numbers jump to almost 25,000 K–8 students, living 30 minutes or more from one of those schools, and over 45,000 high schoolers living 30 minutes or more from a school other than a traditional public school. That’s about one, that’s a little more than one in ten high school students in the state.

Mike Shaw: So, it’s definitely not equitable access for all Hoosier students.

Drew Catt: Yeah.

Robert Enlow: So, one of the things I wanted to note, point here is, we’ve got to put this stuff in real terms. Right? So, when you say overall, I’m looking at nine out of ten Hoosier families are a 15 minute drive from an A-rated K–8 school of any type, that’s great. So that distance is basically 10 minutes longer than I drive downtown to work every day. And so we gotta think about this in terms of, how close in some ways, and how lucky Indiana is, to have this kind of options, these kind of options and quality close by. Now, that said, as you’ve been saying, there are a lot of places in rural Indiana that don’t have that, right?

And so, what I think we have to be very, very cognizant of, if we’re going to spend our resources in the state of Indiana, we need to start thinking about how and when we’re spending them on schooling. Much of this as you know, is a district level decision. But the state of Indiana has spent $750 million new dollars on K–12 education in the last six years. I can guarantee that not much of that has gone to these deserts is my guess.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and it’s kind of in my mind, fairly intuitive, that some of these deserts are where some of these F-rated … wait well, actually there’s only one F-rated district in the state, contrary to normal bell curve distribution of grades, so the one F-rated district in the state is in every single desert that we measured, and there were a couple of the D-rated districts in the state, that were in all or multiple of the deserts that we observed.

Robert Enlow: So one of the things I want to ask you guys, one thing I found interesting about this, is Hoosiers, people talk about how there aren’t private schools available to families, right, in rural areas, and suburban areas around the state. But actually, Hoosiers are closer to high-quality private schools on average, based on drive times than they are to charter schools.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, we definitely saw some sector differences when we mapped out various types of deserts. Obviously, the choice deserts which constitute the second part of our report, are strictly dealing with your charters, magnets, and voucher-participating schools. But for the A rated deserts, and another desert we’ll talk about shortly, there were sector differences. Obviously the traditional public schools constitute the majority of schools in the state, so their drive times were less than the other sectors. But, following not too far behind, at least at the K–8 level, were the private sector, well ahead of the charter and magnet sectors. So that definitely affects the drive times throughout the state.

Drew Catt: And I think to your point, Robert, about the difference between the charter schools and the voucher schools, we have to kind of look at more of a historical context of private schooling in the state of Indiana, and where private schools already existed, before the implementation of the voucher program, versus when the charter law was passed. There weren’t any charter schools prior to that, so not having been part of the movement at that point in time, I assumed that the charter operators were just looking for the highly, densely populated areas, where they knew they would have some students to attend the schools.

Robert Enlow: So, this goes back to the values conversation. So, there’s two things going on here. There’s this sort of economics, and there’s value. So, charter authorizers, when they came to the state, clearly had the value that they wanted to go into the urban areas because they felt that’s where the kids were getting the least served. And back in 2001 when this bill passed, the charter school bill passed, that was definitely the case, right? Urban education was really in difficult straits. We knew we had problems with it, and there’s been a ton of investment. On the other hand, they’re not making decisions about where to put schools, unless they have enough kids to go to them. And so, whether you think it or not, charter school leaders, and as our public school leaders are very attuned to economics and demography. Where kids are and how many of them are there. And so, you put those two factors together and the initial movement for charter schools in the state of Indiana was in highly concentrated urban areas.

Now, what’s interesting about this report, when I think that lawmakers, and when I certainly think that educational formatters could start thinking about is, maybe we saturated that at this point. Maybe in the urban areas, we’ve gotten pretty, there’s some pockets we need to fix, but certainly we’ve gotten families who were low income access. In fact, they have greater access to A-rated schools than people who were wealthier from what I understand in this report. And so, what I think we’ve done really well in the state of Indiana, is concentrate our resources on areas that needed them. Now, I think we should be thinking about the next steps, right? And one of those next steps would be, maybe we should concentrate our resources in rural and suburban Indiana.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and shameless plug. While we did use the 30-minute drive time to denote deserts on our report, we do have this amazing, online interactive map on our website, where you can also look at the 10-minute drive times and the 20-minute drive times, to kind of do that more nuanced look at some of these urban areas.

Robert Enlow: Oh, that’s great, and my guess in some urban areas like Indianapolis where we live, you’ll see some places that have pockets of problems and things like this. Same thing in Fort Wayne, same thing in Evansville. But on the whole, if you’re looking at where we should be thinking about investing our dollars in K–12 education, we should be thinking about investing them in rural Indiana in many ways. Or, the other, the inverse side of that is, we should be rethinking what schooling looks like in rural America, and certainly rural Indiana. And so, we don’t want to concentrate our resources there, because there’s not enough economic availability of kids, right, and there’s no demography that supports the school. We should be thinking about innovative ways to create schooling.

Mike Shaw: And as far as investment goes, our third area of map and deserts we looked at kind of focused in the areas that don’t have the choices, and don’t have the highly rated options that other areas of the state have. Drew, can you tell us kind of about these areas, and how we define them?

Drew Catt: Yeah, so basically the map of the choice deserts that we were describing, which was 30 minutes to any voucher-accepting, or private, charter or magnet schools. We took those and stripped out all of the D- and F-rated schools, because we assume if a student’s trying to escape a low-rated traditional public school, they may not necessarily want to go to a low-rated choice school. So, after we took out those “D” and “F” schools, we ran the drive-time analysis again, and found more deserts, and decided to take all the “D” and “F” traditional public schools and layer them onto the map, with thankfully the federal government has a school attendance boundary survey that they have been working on. Hopefully, next year of data’s more complete, but we were able to actually map out the attendance boundaries of these D- and F-rated schools that are overlapping these deserts. And we actually found that there were 18 traditional public schools serving K–8 students, and three traditional public high schools where at least a portion of the students that live in those attendance boundaries only have a poorly rated schooling option.

Mike Shaw: So, to summarize, no options and the school those students are assigned to is poorly rated. Really the areas where lawmakers and education entrepreneurs could probably focus effort to promote the most good, I would imagine.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and it’s not even putting new schools in place, although that is definitely an option. But it’s investing dollars in the schools that already exist. There are multiple leadership programs that some of these principals could benefit from across the state, and it also comes down to, well do families really care about this rating system? I mean, we highlighted two of the districts in our report, Mike, and one of them was the only F-rated district in the state, down in Cannelton, and of the students that actually attend the school, or the combined schools, there are interestingly, it’s listed as one school in the Department of Ed database, and there are two schools according to the district website. But, over 100 students are transferring in to the only F-rated district in the state. Which means, that those parents are transferring for, most likely another reason other than academics.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, I’m really curious what those reasons are. Maybe we could make it down to Cannelton and some of these other deserts in some of the coming months, to do a little more digging.

Robert Enlow: Because it’s not like there’s not density down there of kids, I’m looking at the maps right now, and there’s definitely numbers of kids where you could create highly rated schools, and get in there for creating options, and so we do know that private schools on the whole, down in these areas are closer too, so that’s great, but there’s a lot of opportunity here.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and it was interesting that there was not only F-rated district, there was a single voucher student, looking at DOE publicly available reports. But when we ran the analysis, they were 31 minutes away, if they lived on the edge of the district, and that’s only crossing the river, the Ohio River, south into Kentucky, driving through Kentucky, crossing the Ohio River again, back into Indiana, just to attend a voucher school.

Robert Enlow: Yeah, that’s up near Owensboro, where I grew up in Evansville. I know exactly where that is.

Mike Shaw: Little tougher than your downtown commute, Robert.

Robert Enlow: Little tougher, but more fun. One of the things I think is interesting is, if you look at the drive times. You know, the more and more you look at them, you can see where the curves are showing, that in high school, we have a real problem giving more options. So charters are great in many ways, and vouchers are great in many ways, but we’ve got a distribution curve issue here when it comes to getting high-quality charter and private high schools.

Mike Shaw: And in just the way the maps are designed and analyzed, that does make sense, because high schools tend to have more students than K–8 schools, elementary and middle schools. And because of that, there will be less of them, and less plotted on the map, which will affect drive times for all students, so that definitely makes sense. With that being said though, those are still formative years in high school that are very critical for the state of education in Indiana, and they’re definitely with the one out of 10 students living in these deserts, that Drew cited, there definitely needs to be attention paid to these deserts. One mechanism may be education savings accounts (ESAs) and, Robert, I’m curious how you think these savings accounts may help with high school deserts and the state as a whole.

Robert Enlow: Well, so this takes you into a huge conversation about funding of schooling, so at just to remind everyone, I’m sure everyone who’s a podcast listener understands how we fund K–12 schools in America. We collect taxes from both the state, federal and local portions of our check, so we, property taxes locally, state income or sale tax, and then federal taxes. Those pots are then put together and then given to kids on a per-student formula basis, where varying numbers is at stake. There’s a certain amount that locals give, a certain amount that feds give, a certain amount the state gives.

So all this comes together to fund this. And then it goes to a school district, and then it maybe gets down to the school, but not always. And so we have these huge issues of how funds are distributed. And choice programs, like charter schools, the parent chooses the charter school and the money follows the child to that school. For the most part, but not all of it. And then the private school, only a portion of the state funds do. So one of the problems is, this is all school-based. What I mean by that is, it’s a per-pupil funding unit that goes to a school, that gets to distribute it.

One of the things about education savings accounts, which is so unique, is it inverts that conversation. It basically says, “Hey, this is per-pupil funding, it goes then to the per-pupil family,” and then they can then put that money into the resources they think are best for their child. Whether that is a school, or whether that might be a tutor or some other idea that we haven’t even come up with. And so it really does up end the fact that it puts the idea of a building in the center of where the money goes. It puts the family in the center, and I think that’s why education savings accounts are so important.

Mike Shaw: And not to mention, they’re a potential use for online tutoring or courses. Indiana’s online virtual schools, they’re statewide, so you wouldn’t have deserts per se like Drew and I mapped. You would have equitable access in that system, although they’re still relatively new, so but it’s a mechanism of options, these ESAs, so it’s definitely worth paying attention to.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and those online charter schools do serve an important niche for a very large number of students, however as we looked, and when we removed all the “D” and “F” charter schools, we weren’t even able to include those, and we even looked at where students in some of these D- and F-rated districts were transferring into, in terms of charter schools. And we saw that the online charter schools that they were choosing were still F-rated in the eyes of the State Board of Education.

Robert Enlow: Look, the whole thing about ESAs, and the whole thing about this, the mapping, it really does show A) where the need is and B) where you can find a solution to help solve that need. We’ve got to always be careful of acting like we know the best solution, right? There’s this idea of online schooling, and that’s great. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. In fact, not all kids are ready to go to online schools, right? But there’s got to be a thousand things out there that we haven’t even thought of. I mean, one of the things that makes, I think, that makes humans so great, is that we come up with these incredible solutions to these incredibly complex problems. Except it seems, when it comes to government-run schooling.

Now, it seems really challenging. You know, we can create a system where I can get a drone to deliver me food, or a guy can pick me up on the side of the road and drive me wherever I want. I mean these incredible things, and yet we can’t put that kind of energy yet into how do we solve this problem and crack this nut of getting kids educated. And so I think that’s one of the things that this mapping program should do, and one of the things that the ESAs can do, and so it really I hope will, as Dr. Friedman said, unleash the power of free thinking and free minds. And now at least, we know where to unleash that power, and how to unleash that power. And so, you’ve got the where, and now we’ve got some ideas on how, so we just need to basically get it done. Or as they would say, we’d understand in more rural area where I grew up, let’s get ‘er done.

Drew Catt: And in my mind, personally the why is because every student deserves an opportunity to fulfill their potential, and to be in an educational environment (notice I didn’t say school environment)—educational environment that will allow them to tap into their passion and to find the best path forward to be successful in life, whatever their definition of successful is.

Robert Enlow: You know, I couldn’t agree with that more, and I’m sitting here thinking about Mike Shaw and you, and our staff, and Jacob in here. And you know, we have this incredible staff, and not a single one of you are the same. And as someone who’s been lucky enough to manage you all through in various ways, I feel really blessed, but I also understand, boy that’s a lot of thinking about what each person needs. And that’s awesome. And so I segment different things that different teams need. So research team needs something, and communication team needs something. In education, we can’t even get to that kind of segmentation conversation. Hey, rural schools need something different than suburban schools, and suburban schools need something different than urban schools, and teachers in suburban schools need … these are basic conversations that all businesses and all non-profits deal with every day, that we can’t seem to even start in education. And I really think that this idea of putting a focus on where the deserts are in Indiana can maybe start having that conversation as a result.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and to your point even, to take it even a step further, just because there’s a desert in southern Indiana and a desert in northern Indiana, doesn’t mean that the needs of those communities are the same.

Robert Enlow: Yeah, having been someone who grew up in southern Indiana, I understand the power of a river. I totally understand what that river means. That’s not the same up there near Fowler in Benton County. I mean, I know exactly the difference between those two, and they are very unique communities, and we can’t treat them as one size fits all. And Mike, I’d be interested in your conversations here, because I know you come from a unique community in St. Louis, you know outside, so how do we get to a better understanding of how to individualize these sort of conversations around education?

Mike Shaw: You know, it’s interesting to compare where I came from to Indiana, because the choice options here and the consolidated districts, and the more students, not completely but the more student-centered funding is night and day, compared to my home state of Missouri, and St. Louis in particular. With that being said though, these maps and this analysis definitely shows that these policies meant for all Indiana students on a statewide basis don’t penetrate throughout the state as they were intended to. And certainly, demographics may play a part of that. In our reports here I do lay out where the school-aged children in the state are located, as related to the various deserts.

But, I think there also has to be an effort on empowering educators especially. We tried to tailor this report to educators and entrepreneurs, and help them recognize the areas of need, but also try to focus policies and potential solutions on what may help schools and educators grow, in these areas and others throughout the state.

Drew Catt: I think one option that we barely even mention in our report, because the focus was on schools and the ratings and options. But talking about our own backgrounds and experiences for me, the local traditional public school that was literally across the cornfield from the farm that I grew up on wasn’t a good fit for me. And the only option that my family knew of to educate me in the way that they thought was just, was to homeschool me. And that, maybe that is an option for a lot of these families in rural or even suburban or urban communities. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they shouldn’t have access to a high-quality school, regardless of what their definition of quality is. For some of them it may be safety. For some of them, it may be treating their children as adults and focus on play, or focus on academics. But it’s all about everyone being able to have that option.

Robert Enlow: You know, it’s about getting in where you fit in, and I think if you use that language and you think about it that way, we’ve got to create a system that works from the child outwards, not the adult downwards. So, I think getting in where you fit in is a great way to think about it, it works. And then the question becomes scale and scope and size and all that. But that’s why we have smart minds in America, and certainly smart minds here in Indiana, and so I think, I’m hoping that this survey and study, and resultant conversation about education savings accounts will help policymakers and community leaders, and heck even the Department of Education here in Indiana help understand where they can focus some of their resources.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and that’s, at the end of the day, the best thing that can happen in my mind from a piece of research that we’re working on, is have it be a conversation starter.

Robert Enlow: I think that’s right. Like that would encourage the Department of Education to come and chat with us about it. Let’s have this conversation with them. We’re definitely going to send it to them.

Mike Shaw: And if you listeners at home want to expand the conversation, definitely check out the interactive map Drew mentioned to see whether or not you’re located in a schooling desert, or where the highly rated or choice options are located within your communities. Also, check out a report, it’s at like all of our research.

Robert Enlow: And I bet you could get on that mapping function, could get it to the place you want on your screen, click print screen, and send it off to DOE and say, make a comment or two. I mean I bet you could do all sorts of fun stuff with that out there in the audience. Well it’s there, it’s interactive. It’s there for a reason.

Drew Catt: Yeah, type in your own address, type in a relative’s address or even just zoom into a part of the state that you’re not really familiar with.

Robert Enlow: Absolutely, that’s the whole point of being able to use that kind of interactive tool that way.

Drew Catt:  Yeah, it’s so important. So before we sign off, is there anything else either of you would like to add?

Mike Shaw: I would just say that it was really a joy working on this project. I know Drew especially has kind of taken the lead on mapping projects here at, on our research team at EdChoice. We’ve done a fair amount of work on just drive times from private schools and other states, where we do survey work. But I’m definitely interested to do more mapping projects related to these quasi-quality measures denoted by school letter grades, as well as choices and options, and maybe other variables later on in other states. I think there’s just an untapped market for this type of work, and hopefully it can expand the policy and entrepreneurial conversation in Indiana and hopefully elsewhere.

Robert Enlow: So I love the way you say that, and I agree wholeheartedly, and I hope it expands the conversation around … it’s such a unique environment we live in today, where we’re not having a lot of cross conversations with issues, and between parties, and all the kind of stuff we know about every day, we hear about every day. And so we should be thinking about all these issues that come along attended, and maybe it’s a little bit more complex than just schooling. It’s culture, it’s location. So maybe this can start to foster some of those larger conversations, around what do we mean to have a strong society. Part of our mission statement here is, we believe in choice for all families, so that we can have a successful life and a stronger society. And it’s my hope that this research will lead and add to that conversation about a stronger society. And I think it will.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And education is an important part of a stronger society and of a strong community, but it’s not the only part as you were saying. Healthcare is vitally important. Strong, good jobs for the members of the community are vitally important.

Robert Enlow: Yeah. And the more you deal with jobs and education, you think about it in a much more holistic way, you know that’s what this kind of mapping can show.

Drew Catt: Yeah, I know that’s very interesting about layering on the other data points, because we didn’t. We only explored these educational options, and these school board of education-assigned letter grades. But there are hundreds of other data point that we could layer on to see what else may be a contributing factor to some of these areas.

Robert Enlow: Absolutely right, and so I commend the two of you for doing the research, and I’m glad we decided to do it. And you know, every time I go to a place and show them the stuff, they go, “Can we have one, can we have one?” So it’s clearly desired around the country, so thanks again.

Drew Catt: Oh, thank you. Well that’s all for this episode. Thanks again to our listeners for tuning in. As always, be sure to subscribe for more EdChoice Chats, and we’ll catch you next time. Take care.