Rural and charter schools should be allies

Charter schools and rural school districts in Idaho and other rural states have often been portrayed as mortal enemies. The success of one must come at the expense of the other. There have been well-chronicled stories of political battles akin to blood feuds when a charter opens in a small school district and draws 10, 20 or 30 percent of the local students. For example, the Gooding School District in Gooding, Idaho, fought hard, unsuccessfully in the end, to stop the Heritage Charter School from opening because the pain of losing 10 percent or more of its students, and the state dollars that went with them, created tremendous controversy in the town of about 3,500. The community frayed and friendships were lost as people had to decide which of the town’s two public schools to support.

In Colorado, the Moffatt 2, in an isolated San Luis Valley community, and supporters for the local Crestone Charter School fought a series of extended political and legal battles over the right of that charter to operate and draw 30 percent of its students from the district. Jim Griffin, long-time Colorado charter school supporter and education leader, said the battles in the 1990s and early 2000s around rural charter schools in his state were as nasty and tough as any big city charter battles in states like New York, Ohio or California.

As head of the Idaho Charter School Network, and as a member of the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho, I am in a unique position to learn about such stories because I am advocating for quality charter schools while also learning more and more about the significant demographic, fiscal and educational challenges facing rural school districts and rural communities more generally. But, despite war stories about charters and rural school districts there is much in common that can and should unite educators and supporters from both camps in rural states like Idaho.

First, both work under tough fiscal conditions. In fact, there is far greater discrepancy in per pupil funding levels between the state’s largest school districts and smaller rural school districts than there is between rural districts and charters. Both charters and rural districts are expected to do more with less than their better off suburban and city district peers. Rural districts and charter school supporters would be wise to develop a shared legislative agenda for more equitable funding for their public school students.

Second, as both charters and rural districts struggle to maximize the effectiveness of every dollar there are opportunities for both sectors to share services and expertise. This is happening in powerful and innovative ways in Arkansas. The Arkansas Public School Resource Center (APSRC) has been working with both that state’s charter schools and its many rural school districts since its launch in 2008.

Remarkably, the APSRC has membership agreements with 100 percent of the state’s 38 charter schools and with 75 percent of its 240 or so school districts. Services provided by the non-profit school support organization range from financial and legal to teaching and learning supports, technology support and public relations and communications. Charters and districts alike benefit from the expertise provided. Further, they benefit and learn from each other at APRSC workshops and conferences, and as they spend more time together relationships improve and friendships develop.

Third, some rural school district superintendents across the country are using their state charter school laws to better serve their communities by providing options they can’t under district rules and constraints. In other cases, superintendents have used charter laws to keep buildings open in remote parts of their districts that they would otherwise have to close.

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In Walton, Kansas, the local superintendent was faced with having to close one of his distant elementary schools in 2007 because of declining enrollment. At the community’s request, however, the superintendent agreed to the school becoming a standalone charter school that would be run independently by the local community and educators. The agriculture-based charter school has actually turned its enrollment decline around in recent years as parents from other communities now send their children to the school because of its reputation for outstanding academic performance. The local superintendent, John Martin, told an interviewer from the U.S. Department of Education in 2011 that the charter school has actually helped save the community. According to Martin, “When the school goes, the community is not far behind.”

Few may realize it, but charter schools and rural school districts have reason to find common cause. The more they do the more students in both are likely to benefit, and with them the larger community.