January 29, 2014

A New Frontier: Utilizing Charter Schooling to Strengthen Rural Education

By By Andy Smarick

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Student achievement results in our nation’s most remote areas look very similar to those in our inner cities — heartbreakingly low. Yet while urban families increasingly have access to a variety of school options, including charter schools, many rural families have just a single school option. There are a mere 785 charter schools across rural America. Just 111 of them serve students in remote rural areas.

It is a common belief that chartering simply doesn’t mesh well with rural communities. To be sure, there are challenges associated with charter schooling in rural areas. But there are also numerous examples of rural charter schools that have done great things for students while also benefiting the larger community. There are many reasons to believe that if chartering is done smartly, it can help even more rural areas.

Policymakers at all levels of government should better understand the opportunities and challenges of rural charter schools. In this report, we examine the policies and practices in five states — Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, and Ohio — to learn how rural charter schooling is working in a variety of contexts. We then identify four key policy recommendations for states with significant rural populations:



  • State leaders should design flexible policies that enable communities, districts, state officials, and school operators to jointly determine when and where charter schools might be a useful reform strategy. Too many states have put in place policies that explicitly or implicitly limit the growth of charter schools in rural areas.
  • Many rural areas struggle to recruit and retain highly effective educators. The accountability-autonomy bargain of charter schooling offers new opportunities to solve this problem. Policies should provide charter schools with additional flexibility related to teacher and administrator credentialing—either through school-wide waivers from certification requirements or flexible but rigorous alternative routes to certification.
  • Policymakers should ensure that rural charter schools have equitable access to funding, including funding for transportation and facilities. Policies should enable rural charter schools to access unutilized and underutilized public assets, including school buildings, municipal facilities, and land.
  • Policies should allow rural charter schools to pilot innovative uses of technology, both to bridge the distance between students and their schools and to increase students’ access to highly effective teachers.

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