October 16, 2014

Rural Charter Schooling – Boon Or Bust?

By Bellwether

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Can charter schools transform rural education? Depends who you ask.

My colleague Andy Smarick sees charter schooling as a boon for rural communities. Matt Richmond thinks pretty much the opposite. It’s a good debate to have because it points up some issues that have implications outside the rural context.  And while I think Andy oversells the possibility of charters in the rural context, the responses to his argument were mostly predictable charter talking points from the usual suspects rather than any real analysis. So I’m grateful to Matt for his seriousness.

My take is that while chartering schooling does have promise for rural schools it’s probably limited in its impact and those limits point up important challenges for rural education.  This is an issue that’s especially important to me. I’ve been fortunate to live full time in rural communities for more than a decade of my life and be involved with rural schools to see the good and the challenges (plenty of both). Rural education should be important to everyone in education rather than the backwater it is. According to federal data 24 percent of American students attend rural schools, while 32 percent of American public schools and 57 percent of school districts are rural

As to chartering, some of the barriers to rural chartering are obvious. Lower-population density mutes the potential for a broad array of brick and mortar schools. Technology can help with this to some extent (although while everyone in the Acela corridor and Bay area seems to think the broadband problem is solved access remains a big issue in many rural communities). But even if the technical problems are addressed not every parent (rural and otherwise) wants this style of education for their child. In addition, even more than their urban and suburban counterparts rural schools often serve multiple roles in a community and people seek attachment to them for reasons beyond academics.

Of course, as with all schools the mainstream rural public schools do not work well for some percentage of students who want or need something different. And it makes sense to ensure that there are mechanisms, and charter schooling is a powerful one, to enable the creation of different and alternative high-quality options for them.  School districts can and should also do more to create cooperative alternative and specialty options for students than they do now. The Virginia virtual Governor’s school is a good example of an option like this. And, of course, there is too much knee-jerk resistance to chartering in the rural sector as there is across much of the education sector.

But the larger issue is the challenge of capacity.  One can argue that rather than more charters, what we have in rural education is too many charter-like schools now. Because of aspects of policy and benign neglect many rural schools enjoy a fairly high degree of flexibility, and by necessity autonomy, today.  Bootstrapping is common because there is more work than personnel to do it. So while the best charter schools increasingly leverage the power of network – basically becoming high-performing but not geographically contiguous school districts – rural schools are left on their own. It’s the romantic ideal of American education and it doesn’t work very well in too many cases.

That’s why a theory of action that posits that what these schools and communities need is more autonomy and flexibility raises some questions.  Several Bellwether colleagues and I recently surveyed rural superintendents in Idaho and while paperwork complaints and funding were common, most of the challenges the superintendents cited had to do with capacity issues and lack of network and support rather than a need for more autonomy. For instance, 58 percent said the biggest obstacle they face in firing a low-performing teacher is finding a suitable replacement.  Meanwhile, two-thirds of these superintendents are involved in service-sharing agreements between districts and more than 9 in 10 saw benefit to such arrangements.

Yes in more urbanized communities creating running room for innovative schooling options seems likely to release a great deal of pent up demand. We are seeing that in communities around the country. A few weeks ago there was a rally in New York to call attention to the potential of charter schools to help students stuck in persistently lousy schools. Just today there is a powerful new study on charter-like small schools in New York City. In cities around the country educators want to do things differently, parents want more options, and entire sectors of promising schools have emerged as a result. Only the paid advocates think that penning up this energy is a good idea.  The recent CREDO report on Los Angeles is an outlier on the high side but New York City, Washington, Boston, Indianapolis, Houston, Denver, and other cities offer compelling examples as well. (That’s why many charter school critics are fast becoming education’s birthers in their inability to engage with any evidence that doesn’t comport with a preconceived worldview). Yet for rural schools the scale of that pent of demand and capacity to meet it are less. There are simply fewer people in play to begin with. There is less demand. And there are fewer resources.

So that brings us back to Matt’s argument that rural charter schools are a bad idea. I don’t think that’s the case. He overstates the issue in the other direction. Besides, many things that were considered impossible in education have proved quite possible so we should be careful about limiting our aspirations. Andy’s encouragement to think boldly  on this and other issues is a valuable push toward bold ambitions. But I do think charters, while playing a role in all this, are just an idea with a lot less applicability in many rural communities. In other words, an idea should be used as much as possible but that at the same time shouldn’t distract us from the core task of improving the effectiveness of today’s rural schools, which by necessity means improving today’s rural schools.

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