The unique case for rural charter schools

The Conversation

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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.

Op-ed: Credible climate scientists need to boycott biased congressional hearings

Global temperature difference from average during February. (Image credit/NASA)

David W. Titley, director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk, professor of practice in the department of meteorology, and professor in the School of International Affairs, authored an article on The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang blog about current congressional climate science hearings.  Here’s an excerpt:

David Titley

“Unless you’ve been living under a (melting) ice shelf recently, you know by now the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science Space and Technology is holding a climate science hearing Wednesday to probe the ‘assumptions, policy implications and scientific method.’

“This hearing, whose witnesses consist of one mainstream climate scientist and three other witnesses whose views are very much in the minority, is remarkably similar in structure and scope to the climate hearing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) conducted in December 2015 titled ‘Data or Dogma’? So similar that two of the five witnesses from the Cruz hearing will also testify on Wednesday.

“In the past, the science community has participated in these hearings, even though questioning the basics of climate change is akin to holding a hearing to examine whether Earth orbits the sun.


“For years, these hearings have been designed not to provide new information or different perspectives to members of Congress but, rather, to perpetuate the myth that there is a substantive and serious debate within the science community regarding the fundamental causes or existence of human-caused climate change.

“We should no longer be duped into playing along with this strategy.”

Read the full article at


Political scientists say our political system is broken

Donald Trump speaks at a December 2015 campaign stop at Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photo Credit: Matt A.J./Flickr

Donald Trump speaks at a December 2015 campaign stop at Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photo Credit: Matt A.J./Flickr

Robb Frederick | Penn State Behrend public information coordinator


“I had hoped that this would be a campaign only about ideas … but unfortunately, this has been a very different election year.” — Marco Rubio, Feb. 28, 2016

The description of politics as blood sport has seldom been so apt: The 2016 presidential campaign has, from the start, been a bare-knuckle, back-alley melee, with candidates mocking their rivals’ spray tans, small hands and even their fathers, who may or may not have been photographed with Lee Harvey Oswald. History suggests our politicians showed more decorum even in 1804, when Vice President Aaron Burr dispatched Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Robert Speel

Robert Speel

The government’s other two branches have their own challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court, short a justice since the February death of Antonin Scalia, is now positioned to answer the nation’s most pressing legal questions with a 4-4 ideological tie. Congress is particularly reviled: A 2013 Gallup poll found that just 10 percent of respondents felt “quite a lot” of confidence in the legislative branch. That was down from 42 percent in 1973, when the nation was divided by Vietnam and an international oil crisis.

“Part of the problem is the structure of our political system,” said Robert Speel, associate professor of political science at Penn State Behrend. “Those checks and balances, which Americans hold so dear, may have worked in 1787, but in modern times, they just lead to deadlock. All three branches of government block the others from doing anything. It’s setting us up for political disaster.”

Speel has studied the parliamentary systems in Canada and Great Britain. He sees one advantage there.

“When they find themselves in a budget crisis, they hold a vote of no-confidence,” he said. “They throw out the parliament and hold new elections immediately. With that option, you no longer have two parties in a budget standoff that can freeze progress on everything.”


“Knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. I will pay for the legal fees.” — Donald Trump, Feb. 1, 2016

Parliamentary systems have their own flaws — particularly in Taiwan, where debate-floor brawls are common. Speel would argue first for a different fix: an open primary system, which would reward candidates who move to the center.

“When local partisan voters choose their candidates, you amplify the voices of hard-core party activists,” he said. “Candidates have to court the extreme positions in each party, and that leads to even more polarization.”

To counter that, California and Washington state have adopted a “top-two” primary model, in which the top vote-getters, regardless of party, square off in the fall. “That gives all candidates an incentive to appeal to moderate voters,” Speel said.

John Gamble

John Gamble

Many of the legislative districts those voters live in also should be redrawn, said John Gamble, distinguished professor of political science and international law and director of the college’s honors programs. Districts often are redrawn following the decennial census — generally to the benefit of the party then in power.

“Partisan politics should not be involved when we draw the boundaries for congressional districts,” Gamble said. “We ought to have uniform laws in all fifty states for that.”

Seven states, including California, have established bipartisan or nonpartisan legislative commissions that are tasked with drawing more representative congressional districts. “They draw districts that make sense on a map, rather than benefiting one party or the other,” Speel said.


“Mr. President, the world’s dying to know: Is it boxers or briefs?” – Laetitia Thompson, questioning former President Bill Clinton, April 19, 1994

Donald Trump is not the first political candidate to throw mud from a gutter. He just does it with more gusto.

The shift to tavern-talk politics dates back at least to Bill Clinton, Gamble said. Before Clinton, no sitting president had discussed on television his preferred style of underwear.

“He never should have answered that,” Gamble said. “You have to set some limits. He should have said, ‘That’s none of your business.’ ”

Subsequent campaigns have only lowered the bar. Gamble expects more of the same through the fall election.

“Over time, the system will correct itself,” he said. “But the American people have a long history of getting right up to the edge of the cliff before we realize we’re about to fall off. I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

“This is a very serious business, however, and I don’t think we say that enough. The decisions that are made by a president can directly affect the lives of millions of people. Let’s not forget that.”

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