Charter schools: Challenges & advantages in rural America — interview with Juliet Squire | VIEWPOINT

Juliet: It’s important to say that rural charter
schools are not always a good idea. They are not a universal solution to rural
challenges. Andy: Juliet Squire from Bellwether Education
Partners, thanks so much for being with me. Juliet: Oh, it’s good to be back at AEI. Andy: That’s right. Juliet is a long time friend colleague of
the American Enterprise Institute. So it was great to have you participate in
the event we had today, but also writing a chapter on rural charter schools for this
volume we’re doing. So your chapter is on the intersection of
this policy intervention chartering with this broad area of public education rural schooling. So what don’t you just very briefly, what
do we know about these two things when they collide? Rural schools and chartering. Juliet: Yeah. Well it’s a pretty small sliver of the education
policy landscape. There are exactly 769 rural charter schools
in the United States, as of the 2014-15 school year. Andy: Okay. About how many schools are we talking nationwide,
100,000 or something like that? Juliet: Something like that. Andy: So we’re talking fraction of a fraction. Juliet: Really small. And within the charter school sector, only
about eight percent of charter school students are in rural areas. Andy: Okay. So when people think of charter schools, generally
they think of big cities and they are right to think of it that way… Juliet: Yeah, more than half of charter schools
are urban. Andy: That’s right. And some are now in suburban areas and it’s
expanding there, but still to this point you’re unlikely to find very many charter schools
in rural America. Juliet: Yeah. Andy: So why is that the case? Why did this happen? Juliet: Yeah, I mean I think there are a lot
of potential explanations for this. So one is there are state policies that explicitly
prohibit rural charter schools, that charter schools are only allowed in areas with certain
thresholds that meet certain thresholds of a student population. So that’s one reason. Andy: Okay. Juliet: But the other reason is that it’s
just really hard to do rural charter schools and to do them well. So there are a lot of barriers to opening
a good rural charter school. One is just low economies of scale. So we know in rural areas that there are lower
economies of scale because whether you have 5 first graders or 25 first grader, you need
a first grade teacher. And that is even harder for rural charter
schools, which usually got about 75 cents on the dollar in funding. Andy: Okay. Juliet: So the economies of scale are even
harder. There are also big challenges with recruiting
and retaining teachers in rural charter schools. There are problems in recruiting and retaining
teachers in rural schools generally, and then doing it for charter schools is even tougher. And a lot of the reason for that is if you’re
thinking about opening a school, especially if it’s in competition with a district school,
you’re looking to recruit teachers from a limited talent pool. So you’re either going to surrounding towns
and recruiting teachers in, which suggests that they won’t stay as long because the commute
is tough. Or you’re looking at attracting them away
from the district school, which in a rural community where the school is such an integral
part of that community, that creates some really interesting and and troubling divisions. And so the human capital piece of it is also
really big. And then the final thing is that rural charter
schools in general really rely on philanthropic funding and grants from the federal government
to fund the start up of schools. And that is just less available in rural areas. The philanthropic community is largely focused
on urban areas and there isn’t as much to support the opening of a rural charter school. Andy: Okay, so all of that makes sense. But let’s take a step back. Actually looking at this from the other side,
because some people who don’t know much about charter schools are skeptical of them may
very well say, “Okay, I understand things have been really bad for a lot of low income
kids in big cities. The school systems have had a hard time turning
around. I don’t really like school choice, but maybe
charter schools in cities make sense.” But why are you trying to start charter schools
in rural areas. What is the rationale? Why do we even care about this subject? Juliet: Yeah. So it’s really interesting, because there
are a lot of policies that I think people try to translate from the urban context to
the rural context that don’t work that well. Andy: Okay. Juliet: So for instance, teacher evaluation. Largely created as a way to help urban superintendents
sort of get past the due process for an ineffective teacher and remove them from the classroom. And that’s sort of been… we’ve sort of tried
to implement that across the entire education policy space in a rural community where there’s
a limited talent pool. Again, the challenge of teacher quality isn’t
always the ability to evaluate and dismiss a teacher, it’s the ability to replace them. So the one example of a policy that doesn’t
translate very well. And a lot of people say that charter schools
are one of those policies. Andy: That’s right. Juliet: And I think that there is some truth
to that. There really are limits to choice and competition
in communities that are small, that have a low number of students and therefore a limited
ability to support more than one option. But there are some rural communities that
are big enough to sustain multiple options, and there are rural charter schools that exist
in those contacts. Andy: Can you pause there, because let’s make
sure people understand this. If you are in New York City, or even like
a smaller community within New York City, Queens, the Bronx, lots of population in one
area. So if you start a charter school, it might
pull two percent, three percent of kids from neighborhood schools. But in a rural area, if in a 50 square mile
radius area there’s one school and you start a charter school. Juliet: That’s exactly right. Andy: It’s going to pool… Juliet: Fifty percent. Andy: …of those kids and that could have
a huge financial influence on that district, on that school. Juliet: Yeah exactly. And so I think the choice and competition
argument for charter schools in rural areas is a little bit limited because of that. Andy: Right. Because couldn’t someone reasonably say, “Yeah,
chartering might be great for some number of kids. But essentially what you’re doing is undermining
every other public school and the District and you’re doing way more harm than good.” Juliet: Yeah. Andy: Okay, so if that’s the case, then why
even bother? What’s the virtue in trying to do charter
schooling? Juliet: So first of all, I mean I think that
rural charter schools have mixed outcomes. Right? So we have to be really honest. Andy: So we have data on this? Juliet: We have data on this. They have really mixed outcomes. So in no way are rural charter schools always
a good idea, and in many cases they are probably a very bad idea. Andy: So the data that we have comparing reading
and math scores of rural charter schools to rural schools, comparable rural schools, doesn’t
always show a gigantic or even any rural charter school advantage. Juliet: Yeah, and sometimes a disadvantage. Andy: And this is different than in urban
areas, right? Where we actually have some data that some
of these urban charters are doing much better? So this is another yellow flag probably? Juliet: Yes, exactly. And so, you know, I think it’s important to
say that rural charter schools are not always a good idea. They are not a universal solution to rural
challenges. Andy: And this is coming from two people who
like school choice, are open to the idea of chartering, we’re saying in rural areas it
might not always be… Juliet: Yeah, it’s a little touch and go. And I think that there are circumstances where
they have been really successful. Andy: Okay, what are the circumstances? Juliet: So one would be this… So there are a couple of reasons that people
found rural charter schools. One is choice and competition. We’ve talked about that. But a second one is in order to maintain local
control over a school. So this is an example from Crestone, Colorado. Andy: Okay. Juliet: So the the local community school
was being closed by the district and they wanted to maintain a local school. Andy: It was being closed presumably because
of low enrollment, it just wasn’t efficient to keep it open. Juliet: It wasn’t financially efficient to
keep it open. Andy: Okay. Juliet: And so the school was being closed
and the students were going to have to ride a bus not that far, 12 miles. But the mountains in wintertime in Colorado,
sounds treacherous, like it could be treacherous, to a nearby school that wasn’t that great. And so the community said, “We don’t want
to do that. We’re going to start charter school.” Andy: To replace the district school that
you’re closing. Juliet: To replace the district… Exactly. And so it was a way for them to take ownership
over their own school and they’ve developed a curriculum that draws on the local community. That’s actually been able to attract more
families into that community because it’s become a hub. Andy: So this is fascinating because charter
laws often in people’s minds are associated with, “Okay, we’re going to empower communities
and families to start schools because the district school to which our kids are assigned
isn’t doing so well.” What you’re saying is the exact same mechanism,
a charter law, can allow a set of families in a community to save public education in
their geographic area. Juliet: Yeah. And I think a lot of what we see in school
turnaround is like the number one thing that really matters is buy in from the community
and from the staff. So if you’re thinking about a rural school
that’s struggling, either academically or financially, the chartering mechanism, that
ability to take ownership over the school and its design and its success is really powerful. Andy: No doubt. So your paper also talks about autonomy though. The right of a school to own itself to do
what it wants, so it can best serve its kids in the way that its community decides. Juliet: Yeah, and that’s actually happened
in a slew of rural districts in Oregon that have converted their schools into charter
schools in order to take advantage of that increased autonomy. Andy: Wow, so what does that actually include? The right to, for example not have a collective
bargaining agreement, to hire differently, to longer school day? Juliet: It depends a lot on the state law. And I’m not an expert on Oregon state law,
but I think, yes, the collective bargaining thing is probably a big piece of it. Curriculum design, school hours, the school
calendar. I know in Oregon, one of the charter schools
has really built an entire curriculum around the natural resources that they have in their
community. It’s very STEM focused, because they’re at
a very bio-diverse area, it happens to be. And so they have been able to build a curriculum
around that that maybe they wouldn’t have been able to do if they’d been accountable
to the same sort of stringent requirements that district schools have to follow. Andy: Okay, so pulling back just chartering
generally, you know, New Orleans virtually all public school kids are now in charter
schools. In Washington D.C., it’s about 50 percent,
so it’s really expanding and it continues to expand in a bunch of cities. What you’re saying is there has been a break
in rural areas, and actually that break is legitimate, it makes sense. But maybe the break has been pressed a little
too hard. There could be reasons why more communities
need to expand or consider this. So at the very beginning, you talked about
maybe philanthropy could do things differently, maybe state policy could do things differently. What would you recommend to do this prudently,
as opposed to go too far too fast? Juliet: Yeah, I mean so I think one, eliminating
these prohibitions in state law is really important. In order for there to be rural charter schools,
you actually have to allow rural charter schools at the highest level. But I think that that also that requires on
the flip side investing in the capacity of authorizers and oversight agencies to effectively
determine when a rural charter school makes sense. Andy: What’s an authorizer? Juliet: The entities that are vested by the
charter school law with the power to give an organization a 501c3, the power to operate
a charter school. Andy: Okay, so if I and my friends wanted
to school, we have to go to you, the authorizer, you give us permission to start the school
and then you keep track of what we’re doing to make sure we’re actually doing good things
for kids. Juliet: Exactly. And so authorizers here in D.C. is probably
one of the best in the country. The Public Charter School Board, right? And they have amazing processes to evaluate
the viability of a charter school down to the human capital, to the community engagement
efforts that they’re going through, the financial viability of the school. All of these things and all of that will look
different for a rural charter school. Andy: In what ways, what should they need
to do differently? Juliet: So if you take the challenge of economies
of scale in rural communities, right? The financial viability of a rural charter
school is going to be very different than the financial viability of an urban charter
school. I don’t know the specifics because I’m not
a financial expert, but you can imagine that like you’re going to need a longer leash of
finances to be able to start the school, get a facility, and then the economies of scale
are going to require you to have maybe more of a reserve or maybe less of a reserve. I don’t know, but it seems like it’s reasonable
to think it would be different. Andy: That’s right. Because if you’re in New York City and you
potentially have access to 1.1 million kids, that’s one thing. But if you are in a small rural community
and your breakeven point is you need at least 250 kids to keep up and running and you have
to worry every year can you get up to 250, you’re going need some financial flexibility
presumably. Juliet: Yeah, exactly. Andy: Okay, so what about philanthropy? What should donors know when it comes to rural
charter schools? Juliet: Yeah, I mean I think that it’s important
for them to understand where rural charter schools have been successful and understand
the conditions for that success so they can look for it. And to the extent that they can prioritize
that in their grant making if they feel like that that’s something that they want to do,
to complement the urban strategy with a more rural strategy. Just understand what the conditions are for
success and then put the money where those conditions are met. Andy: That’s great. Well, thanks so much for coming in to talk
about this really interesting subject. Juliet: Yeah, thanks for having me. Andy: Hi everyone. That’s the end of our discussion with Juliet
Squire. Thanks so much for watching. As always, let us know what other topics you’d
like AEI scholars to cover here on Viewpoint and to learn more about rural education or
charter schools, check the links in the description below.

1 Comment

  1. I don't understand the point of this topic. All the issues mentioned with a rural charter school are the same as a public school. Almost anything economically in rural areas is difficult

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