School enrollment distributions help reproduce social inequality in the United States. Since the first school opened its doors in this country, the U.S. has had (at best) separate and unequal schooling.
Court cases like Abbott in New Jersey have helped equalize funding for low-income communities in a variety of states, but enrollment distributions are still a primary driver of inequality. As the U.S. Supreme Court loudly declared in Brown vs. Board, and as history shows, separate is inherently unequal.
In addition to the economic resources needed to run a school, there are other social forces that drive inequality. These include forms of social and cultural capital that help historically advantaged members of society turn schooling experiences into economic gain.
This is an interesting start; however, there have been a couple issues with charter school enrollment innovations in practice. One issue is that while charter schools undercut the process that made traditional schools segregated, they have showcased new processes that actually make their schools more segregated. A second issue is that with charter school policy the enrollment innovation has come with an additional governance innovation that should make us pause: Charter schools tend to be run by small groups of individuals who are not selected through a democratic election processes.
This is not to condone the fact that many traditional public schools are anti-democratic bureaucracies that find ways to scale down democracy through practice. In all instances, we should seek more democratic arrangements for schooling, not less. We can’t meet the needs of communities without asking them what their needs are.
Perhaps the answer to enrollment inequality, then, is a hybrid idea between the enrollment innovation that charter schools hope to achieve with an infusion of what Common Schools were supposed to do: Community controlled schools with open enrollment that seek integrative environments for students and families.
But how do we create these types of schools?
One idea, historically, has been to find ways to achieve integration within the traditional public school space. These ideas have ranged, but legal battles to support them seem bleak based on contemporary legal decisions from the Supreme Court and others, suggesting new strategies are needed.
Perhaps an alternative strategy is to co-opt charter school policy and use it to arrange for community-based, integrated schools. This is just the start of an idea. Though, regardless of the strategy deployed, the process will be messy. Still, policymakers need to find ways to unlock enrollment inequities to finally create the Common School promise where all children from all backgrounds learn together. This is the only way to truly achieve equal schooling for all.
There is a lot of debate in if and how to use testing in assessing students and schools. Pennsylvania has a solution, check it out in this story from Newsworks.
For those in theTL;DR category: The goal is to use more non-testing metrics to evaluate schools through a new index called the “Future Ready PA Index.” The administration also has a goal to end the number comparisons between schools, something I am guilty of and a practice in which many disagree.
The article can be read below — I have some thoughts to think about as you read: I agree in philosophy, but how often do the goals the author outlines actually happen in practice? The author’s argument made in urban locations as well (many pointing to the “Harlem Children’s Zone” as their favorite example), and as the author notes, “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.” The reality is that schooling becomes outsourced to school managers, which is even more distant from community centers. How often does outsourcing happen in rural communities? This is the question to be asking. If the parent-run, organic, local community ideal is what happens in practice, then it could be an interesting shift.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.