The unique case for rural charter schools

The Conversation

Image 20170226 22983 1beqfro

Rural schools are an often overlooked part of the public education system. Sascha Erni/flickr, CC BY

By Karen Eppley, Pennsylvania State University


The recent appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education has brought rural schools into the national conversation in ways never seen before. At her confirmation hearing, DeVos said that guns might have a place in schools in order to protect from “potential grizzlies” in places like Wapiti, Wyoming.

While the comments about grizzly bears and guns were well-publicized, there was considerably less talk about how DeVos’ pro-charter school agenda could play out in rural communities like Wapiti.

Karen Eppley

As a rural education researcher and a lifelong rural resident, I can attest that rural communities and schools are distinct places of teaching and learning.

Though not often at the center of the national conversation, 33 percent of all U.S. public schools – including Wapiti Elementary – are classified as rural. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that rural schools enroll a total of 9.7 million children. A quarter-million of them attend charter schools.

Under DeVos’ leadership, this number is expected to grow with increased federal support. Although few in number as compared to urban charter schools, charter schools in rural communities are distinct because of the conditions under which they are opened and operated. Like most rural schools, rural charter schools are closely connected to their rural communities.

Importance of schools to rural communities

Thirty-two thousand rural schools serve every region of the United States. These schools are the “heart” of their communities – socially and economically – and are deeply important to their collective identity.

Schools in rural areas not only help to maintain the social fabric of rural communities, but also offer services that reduce the effects of poverty. These include health services, continuing education classes and community literacy programs. Social and economic investment in rural schools is critical for small rural communities that have been affected by an increasingly global economy.

Despite the positive impacts of schools on rural communities, 150,000 rural schools have been eliminated through closure or consolidation since 1930. Rural schools are closed primarily in response to budget cuts and low enrollment.

The story of the closure of the Wellington School is typical. Wellington was located in the potato farming community of Monticello, Maine. The school enrolled 66 children and played a critical role in the community. Residents fended off closure for over 30 years, but the school closed in 2014.

As was the case in Monticello, rural school closures and consolidations almost always face community resistance. In cases where resistance fails, community members sometimes open a charter school in place of the existing school. This is often not because community members are dissatisfied with the traditional school, but because they simply want to maintain a school in the community.

When the residents of Elkton, Oregon were faced with the closure of their school, residents opted to open a charter school in its place. Elkton School District is one of 12 rural single-school districts in Oregon that have converted to charter schools in the face of closure or consolidation. Before becoming a charter schoool in 2009, Elkton enrolled 130 students in grades K-12. Elkton now enrolls 240 students and is no longer at risk for closure.

Transportation is one of the many difficulties facing low-enrollment rural schools. Mark Goebel/flickr, CC BY

Charter schools

Charter schools are an educational experiment of publicly funded, tuition-free schools that operate with few restraints on issues such as teacher qualifications, curriculum and financial transparency. Charter schools are funded through the transfer of money from students’ district of residence (“home” district) to the charter school.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, local school districts approve the applications for or “authorize” about 90 percent of charter schools. Universities, state boards of education, independent charter boards and municipal governments can also authorize charters.

Since the first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991, the U.S. has adopted increasingly charter-friendly policies. This began with the Public Charter Schools Program (PCSP) in 1995, and expanded with the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. In 2015, the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) further increased funding for charter schools – despite emerging research suggesting that charter schools may have lower academic performance and negatively affect the finances of the home district.

The increasingly charter-friendly environment can be traced to an ideological shift: While public education was once seen as a key to democracy, it is increasingly seen as a tool of efficiency and economic competitiveness. This change has created prime conditions for the school choice movement – and for the creation and expansion of charter schools.

And charter schools are growing. There are four times as many charter schools as there were in 1999. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing charter schools.

DeVos’ appointment signals a continued interest on the part of the federal government in the growth of charter schools. The Washington Post called DeVos a “one-issue nominee” for her singular focus on school choice. In DeVos’ state of Michigan, 12 percent of charter schools are rural. Nationwide, 16 percent of charter schools are rural. Still, rural charter schools have been mostly absent from the national conversation.

President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are known advocates of school choice and charter schools. Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Why rural charter schools

A key difference between rural charter schools and urban charter schools lies in how the schools come to be and who is in charge of their day-to-day operations.

Professional management groups (KIPP, Mastery, Propel Schools, Scholar Academies, etc.) are far more likely to manage urban charter schools. Ninety-three percent of New Orleans charter schools and 44 percent of New York City charter schools, for example, are managed professionally. In contrast, just 7 percent of rural charter schools are professionally managed. Ninety-three percent are initiated and operated by local community groups.

That rural charter schools often begin as a response to closure and consolidation explains, in part, the disparity between how urban and rural charter schools are managed. Rural community members open charter schools as a means of keeping a school in their community, and 93 percent of the time, assume the management and operation of the new school themselves. They do so because they feel that the charter is a better choice for their students than the newly consolidated school. What counts as “better” is unique to each situation and community.

Community members may open a rural charter school as a means of sustaining and growing the connections between a school and its community. Likewise, the community may want a charter school that places the rural community at the center of its work. In some cases, a charter school is opened with an explicit emphasis on addressing local need – such as the maintenance of children’s native language. In general, rural charter schools reject the idea that the purpose of schooling ought to be to help students to “learn to leave” their rural community. Rural charters are often opened with the express purpose of keeping children in the community for school.

By establishing a charter school, rural community members, often for the first time in recent history, can have a voice in the education of their children. Parental control is, in fact, the basis of arguments for school choice and charter schools.

Advocates claim that parental control will result in more competitive and efficient schooling. But parental control in the case of rural charters can have a distinctly different meaning. Rural community charter schools are often opened to serve local needs. They are not in competition with other schools (none are nearby) and their small size and emphasis on maintaining community traditions make them distinctly inefficient.

In each instance, the opening of a rural charter school happens in a complex web of educational policy, economic disparities and a long-established cultural disdain of rural people. Until educational, social and economic policies are implemented with rural communities in mind, rural citizens should continue to work to break down barriers for more socially just rural schools and communities – in the same way that urban citizens have.

Rural charter schools can be a mechanism for that work. They are a means for rural communities to talk back to messages and policies suggesting that small rural schools are inefficient, culturally irrelevant and too small to be politically significant.

Karen Eppley, Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, Pennsylvania State University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Will the new education law allow for teachers with lower qualifications?

Photo credit: biologycorner/Flickr

Photo credit: biologycorner/Flickr

Gail L. Bolt | Professor of Education
Bernard J. Badiali | Associate Professor of Education


On December 9, Congress passed the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, called the Every Child Succeeds Act.

Gail Boldt

Gail Boldt

A replacement for the much criticized No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the reauthorization gained support from groups as diverse as The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Education Association, the National Parent Teacher Association, The National School Boards Association, the National Governors Association and Fairtest, an organization that addresses issues related to fairness and accuracy in testing.

Bernard Badiali

Bernard Badiali

With such overwhelming support, it could well be argued that it must be a sound legislation. But, is it?

We have been elementary and secondary school teachers as well as professors and researchers of elementary education, teacher education and teacher development for more than 35 years. And we believe that despite its efforts to redress the problems caused by NCLB, ESSA contains at least one disturbing provision.

We are alarmed by the section of the law that allows states to authorize the establishment of alternative-track teacher education academies, with lower standards and accountabilty for teaching qualifications.

Teacher academies

The support for the ESSA has largely come from its reducing much of the heavy-handed federal oversight of education. States and local school districts can now make more decisions about how best to support student learning.

We are happy that the ESSA supports less testing. In addition, it emphasizes a “well-rounded education.” Students will study arts alongside the academic subjects that were favored under No Child Left Behind.

However, our concern is the inclusion in Title II of the ESSA of language which authorizes routes to teacher certification that attempt to fast-track the preparation of teachers for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade positions.

Nationwide, in order for graduates of teacher education programs based in colleges and universities to gain state certification as a teacher, the programs must follow state requirements such as required entrance and exit exams and the number of credit hours in specific subjects such as reading, math and special education.

In the new ESSA legislation, the envisioned fast-track academies will be exempt from states’ teacher certification requirements.

In other words, they do not have to meet the standards for accountability and accreditation required of university-based teacher education programs.

Kenneth Zeichner, a professor of teacher education at the University of Washington at Seattle, has described this as “promoting the growth of entrepreneurial teacher education programs.”

As Zeichner and another education researcher, César Peña-Sandoval, note, while most of the new ventures in public education, including already existing alternative certification programs, are nonprofits, they gain serious tax advantages from their public status. Such programs receive public funding, and contract out services to for-profit providers, which in many cases are associated with the financial backers of the venture.

Indeed, with the market size of American public education at nearly US$800 billion and legislation friendly to private investment in public education increasing, education is the new great field for entrepreneurial profit.

Teachers without adequate qualifications?

We find it troubling that the legislation allows states to use federal funding for the creation of academies and stipulates that its graduates will be recognized with the same state-issued certification as those who have completed a university-based teacher education program.

States may choose – but are not required – to use up to 2 percent of their education budget to support the academies.

But then, the legislation limits state oversight as well. For example, states will not be allowed to require those teaching at the academies to have experience, degrees or training in education, to hold advanced degrees or to conduct academic research.

This leaves the door open for academies to hire faculty that suit their religious, moral or philosophical values. Or for supporting profit-making ventures, which include promoting the use of commercially manufactured curriculum materials, which may not support student learning as compared to research-based methods.

What’s more, the academies are not required to obtain accreditation.

And what this means is that state departments of education, which hold credentialing authority for teachers, will not be able to mandate that the academies require a specific number of courses or types of coursework such as courses on the teaching of reading or mathematics.

Additionally, the academies do not have to have physical infrastructure, paving the way for entirely on-line teacher preparation programs.

Once someone graduates from an academy, according to the legislation, the certificate may be treated as the equivalent of a master’s degree in education for the purposes of hiring, compensation, retention and promotion. Here is what the act says.

Back to testing?

So why do we find the elimination of standards for teacher education in the ESSA so troubling?

We have two major concerns.

The first is the assumption in the new ESSA that if the teacher knows enough to pass a state-designated content exam in, for example, social studies, science, literature or math, then that teacher is prepared to teach the content. An understanding of how to teach and what is learned beyond testable content is ignored.

Content exams suggest that teacher candidates have the minimum level of knowledge to teach. Passing these tests, which is required in most states, is intended primarily to signal that candidates have a minimum level of knowledge and competency, but does not predict their future effectiveness in the classroom in teaching that content.

Teacher education programs therefore include a strong emphasis on developing pedagogic knowledge and a research-based understanding of student learning.

Pedagogical knowledge – how students learn or fail to learn and how that understanding must be incorporated in approaches to teaching – is well established.

It involves not only student learning of subject matter, but teaching in ways that support students to develop confidence in their own capacities to ask and answer questions in the world, as well as to to think and engage actively, creatively and critically.

However, such pedagogical knowledge is not required for graduates of alternative academies.

By way of “quality control,“ the legislation does require that the teacher candidate demonstrates that she or he is effective at boosting student achievement. The candidates must be placed in classrooms as teachers prior to the completion of their program. This does not require notification to parents of the teacher’s status.

What it may mean to boost student achievement is not specified in the law.

Our second concern is that raising student test scores will be the primary metric of this assessment.

If testing remains, as it has been under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the primary measure of a quality education, then once again it is the students, their families, communities and ultimately the nation that will be saddled with the fallout of a narrow and alienating curriculum.

Who will be affected?

We are also deeply troubled by the prospect that if virtually unregulated teacher certification academies with little academic quality control are allowed to proliferate, the employers of their graduates will be either charter schools, many operating in high-poverty communities, or traditional public schools that lack the resources to be selective and competitive in hiring the best-qualified teachers.

The law itself describes its intention to prepare teachers to work in “high-needs” areas, which include both communities and subject or specialization areas experiencing teacher shortages.

High-poverty urban and rural schools are far more likely to be subject to teacher shortages than schools serving a wealthier population. These high-need schools are also most likely to be staffed by the less experienced, least effective teachers.

Once again, as often happens under the privately managed charter school model, underprepared teachers will end up in the poorest and neediest schools, thereby exacerbating the problem of inequitable educational outcomes for children living in poverty. Studies have shown that the student achievement gap widens when teacher qualifications are unequally allocated to students by race, income and location.

We believe that the provisions in the new law that have the potential to undermine teacher quality can and should be scrutinized before states begin their implementation. States do not have to elect to support these academies.

The American public can and should demand that our schools serve the civic good and the well-being of children and their communities by staffing schools with well-qualified teachers who are prepared to support all children as active, creative and critical thinkers.

The ConversationRead this story on The Conversation (March 25, 2016)


No Child Left Behind’s replacement has its own flaws

Photo Credit: iStock photo © Christopher Futcher

Photo Credit: iStock photo © Christopher Futcher

Dana Mitra | Professor of Education, Co-director of the Center for the Study of Leadership and Ethics


Move over, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) — the federal law that introduced yearly high-stakes testing to schools nationwide. Several years overdue, the federal education act was finally reauthorized mid-December in a new version of legislation — Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This bill replaces NCLB as well as Obama’s Race to the Top and NCLB waiver programs.

The main headline, however, is that this new piece of legislation won’t feel different to most families. The testing era continues for our children, much to the dismay of many. Students still must take mandatory tests every year in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Most children with special needs will still take the tests with no accommodations, regardless of their learning needs. English Language Learners will still take the test the first year they enter the U.S. public school system, regardless of their language ability (although the reporting of the ELL scores has changed slightly).

Dana Mitra

Dana Mitra

States, districts and schools under ESSA will notice greater changes than families. The biggest change to the law is that nearly all decision-making authority has been delegated back to the states, who now once again have great discretion regarding choice of assessment, standards and consequences for failure. Because of this discretion, what ESSA looks like in schools will vary greatly depending on what each state decides to do.

States will also get to decide how to allow families to opt out of standardize tests. Here in Pennsylvania, we have one of the broadest opt-out laws on the books, and it looks unlikely to change with the new legislation. Any family can choose to opt out of PSSAs for religious or ethical reasons. A simple procedure, it involves contacting the school principal, coming in to view the exam, then sending an email to the school superintendent expressing the ethical/religious reason for opting out.

Thus, what will be true across the nation is that schools will no longer be judged solely on test scores. States will decide how to evaluate schools based on a portfolio of measures. States now must also include standardized tests, graduation rates and English Language proficiency. The greatest change is the addition of an “opportunity to learn” measurement as a part of assessing school progress. States get to pick this indicator, which could focus on student engagement, teacher engagement, access to and completion of advanced coursework or school climate, among other options.

States will also have discretion regarding how to try to improve the bottom 5 percent of schools. Gone are mandatory tutoring and school choice consequences. Now, the districts must create a turnaround plan if they have schools measuring in the bottom 5 percent statewide or have high dropout rates. If schools fail to show improvement after four years, states could choose to fire teachers and administrators or turn the school into a public charter, much like the current legislation.

This 1,061-page bill contains a much broader set of policies than usually makes the headlines. I highlight three notable changes from NCLB. First is a dramatic increase in the recognition of the need for Early Childhood Education policy, including funding for program coordination, quality and broadening access to early-childhood education.

Second, teachers and teacher organizations are extremely happy that teacher evaluations are no longer tied to standardized testing. Additionally, many funding streams for teacher support have increased, including professional development monies, class size reduction and funding to train teachers on literacy and STEM issues (science, technology, engineering and math).

The largest red flag of the bill, and the one not being spoken about, is the creation of Teacher Preparation Academies (TPAs). ESSA considers completion of TPAs as equivalent to a master’s degree for the purposes of hiring, retention, compensation and promotion. Instructors in these academies do not even need a higher degree to prepare teachers. These alternative pathways will create a much lower quality certification standard for teacher preparation than traditional teaching programs.

Teacher education experts are starting to sound the alarm of the dire consequences that this part of the legislation could cause, as well as raising the question of the legal ability of the federal government to decide what can and cannot count as a master’s degree in individual states. Research has shown that Teach for America and Teacher Fellowship models have failed to adequately support and retain teachers, and this new version of training teachers quickly will lead to the least prepared teachers being placed in the classrooms with high levels of underachieving children and the fewest resources.

While many hoped that new legislation would bring a reduction to student testing, the new law tinkers with high-stakes assessment rather than dramatically changing it. The main changes have occurred in the smaller policies passed as part of the massive legislation, including the promise of early childhood funding and the potential for lower-quality teacher preparation. Missing from the bill are efforts to address the larger issues of education policy, including how to improve the equity of school funding and to address the growing segregation of our schools.

Read this column on (Jan. 27, 2016)

Skip to toolbar