Charter advocates and education reformers have recently turned at least a little bit of their attention to rural communities. Last summer, Mike Petrilli (Fordham Institute) unleashed one of his wide-release op-eds to point out the “problem” of “charter deserts”–those markets where charter schools have made few inroads. Andy Smarick and Mike McShane just released an entire volume of essays about rural education, and at the 74, Arielle Dreher published a thoughtful piece about one of the tensions inherent in rural education–are schools supposed to educate students to revitalize the local community, or to escape it?
There are fewer than 800 charter schools in the rural parts of this country, and some advocates of choice are anxious to open up that untapped market. But there are some reasons that charter schools are particularly bad fits for rural areas.
Rural Schools Are Part Of The Heart Of Their Communities
My children went to school in a tiny village where the two central institutions were the elementary school and the volunteer fired department. In rural and small town areas, grown adults still identify themselves by what high school they graduated from. Sporting events, school concerts, art displays–these are attended by all sorts of people who are not actual parents of the participants. Launching a charter school in this setting is about as welcome as having a guy move into the house next door and inviting your children to call him “Dad.”
Rural Schools Run On Tight Budgets
One does not remove a few hundred thousand dollars from a rural school budget without really feeling it. Most rural districts are lean operations already, without fifteen jobs like Assistant Vice-Superintendent in charge of Paper that can be easily absorbed. Transportation may be a huge chunk of the budget, and there really isn’t any way to tighten that particular belt. The minute a charter starts “redirecting” tax dollars away from a rural district, that district will feel the hurt.
Rural Communities Are Not Always Easily Entered By Outsiders
This is not to suggest that every rural community is straight out of Deliverance. But city folks often drastically underestimate how important it is to know the territory. Every small town can tell a story about some city big shot who rolled into town and thought he was going to institute sweeping changes, only to fall flat on his face.