April 5, 2017; The Conversation
Charter schools are a growing presence in rural communities, despite the extra hurdles presented by the geography and available resources of those areas. What’s driving rural school districts to establish charters?
One third of U.S. public school students attend the nation’s 32,000 rural schools. Nationwide, 2.6 percent of rural students attend a charter school, compared to about 6 percent of all U.S. students. Charters, 90 percent of which are authorized by local public school districts, are often concentrated in cities, where usable school buildings, teachers, students, and funding are more abundant. Rural charter schools, like traditional public schools (TPS) in those areas, face issues of teacher recruitment, transportation, and resource scarcity, and they receive on average $2,000 less per pupil per year than their traditional public counterparts.
When increasingly restricted funding and shrinking student populations force rural public schools to consolidate, communities often turn to the charter model. Only 21 percent of rural students have a second option for schooling in their home district, compared to 74 percent of urban students. Consolidation could mean a 20-mile commute.
Rural schools often anchor their communities in ways urban schools don’t need to. They provide adult learning opportunities, literacy, health services, and even language preservation in the case of schools in Native American communities. In many rural communities, the school is the largest and best-paying employer, as well as the only employer requiring key employees to have a liberal arts college education. In addition, the school (there’s usually only one building serving all students, pre-K through high school) is a cherished community institution. The school is the last remaining link to a town’s history and most tangible expression of community self-image.
There is another key difference between urban and rural charter schools: The majority of urban charter schools are run by professional networks like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Match, etc. They have broadly implemented standards, professional lobbyists or fundraisers, and often strict disciplinary codes. In rural districts, 93 percent of charter schools are run by parents and other members of the community. Community members serve on the board and may even teach in the classrooms, reinforcing the school’s place as a focus for activities and resources. According to the Rural Health Information Hub, services integration in rural school settings can help high-risk children and their families overcome barriers to care, such as transportation.
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But it’s not necessarily a better option for students. In a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), of the states where rural charter performance was compared to rural TPS performance, five out of seven states showed poorer academic performance in the charter schools.
One of the biggest problems facing rural schools is transportation. Some charters have devised an approach known as “cyber school,” where students attend classes remotely and the school reimburses the families for the cost of high-speed internet to facilitate their participation. Ten percent of charter schools in remote rural areas—that is, rural areas not on the fringe of a metropolis—are cyber schools.
This idea sounds great in theory, but unsurprisingly, remote schools do not serve their students as well as brick-and-mortar schools. According to a 2011 study funded by the University of Pennsylvania, cyber schools typically substantially underperform relative to traditional public schools as well as their brick-and-mortar charter school counterparts. This is unsurprising, since digital tools have been found to be an inadequate substitute for in-person instruction in a number of studies. Moreover, cyber schools naturally cannot provide the community benefits of other rural charters.
This is a conundrum for communities that face resource shortages in almost every area of public service. The need for a central focus of health and education has driven communities to start and run their own schools in thousands of communities across the country, but they consistently underperform both their traditional public rural counterparts and schools in urban areas.
Lots of other factors play into these numbers. For instance, the stress and time loss of longer commutes and poorer access to health resources can negatively impact academic performance, no matter who runs your school. And the benefits of community-run schools, such as the preservation of local languages and values and the ability for all community members to be stakeholders in the education of their children, should not be discounted. But in areas where resources are often already scarce and high-performing teachers and administrators are few and far between, it may be worth reconsidering whether using those scarce public resources to support a charter school is the community’s best option.—Erin Rubin