The best guessimation I can find is that there are just over 7,000 charter schools in the U.S. Of these, only about 10 percent are in rural locations. Why so few?
Peter Greene is a former public school teacher of many years in rural Pennsylvania. He has written an excellent explanation for Forbes of why charters and rural areas generally don’t mix very well. You can read it here.
But for those who are too busy to hit the link, let’s look at some of the highlights of this article.
Rural Schools Are Part Of The Heart Of Their Communities
My children went to school in a tiny village where the two central institutions were the elementary school and the volunteer fire department. In rural and small town areas, grown adults still identify themselves by what high school they graduated from. Sporting events, school concerts, art displays–these are attended by all sorts of people who are not actual parents of the participants. Launching a charter school in this setting is about as welcome as having a guy move into the house next door and inviting your children to call him “Dad.”
Rural Schools Run On Tight Budgets
One does not remove a few hundred thousand dollars from a rural school budget without really feeling it. Most rural districts are lean operations already, without fifteen jobs like Assistant Vice-Superintendent in charge of Paper that can be easily absorbed. Transportation may be a huge chunk of the budget, and there really isn’t any way to tighten that particular belt. The minute a charter starts “redirecting” tax dollars away from a rural district, that district will feel the hurt.
Rural Communities Are Not Always Easily Entered By Outsiders
This is not to suggest that every rural community is straight out of Deliverance. But city folks often drastically underestimate how important it is to know the territory. Every small town can tell a story about some city big shot who rolled into town and thought he was going to institute sweeping changes, only to fall flat on his face.
Charter operators have a history of bypassing the local community they enter, of doing charters to the locals instead of with them. In cities where the power centers may be located far from the neighborhoods in question, that may be successful. In rural areas, it’s less likely to succeed.
Rural Communities Are Limited Markets
Charters are launched with primary attention to business concerns, not educational ones. It is more appealing to launch your charter business in a city with a half a million potential customers than a rural area with five hundred potential customers. Rural areas offer little in the way of the attractive real estate deals that have powered some urban charters. Nor do rural areas have large numbers of wealthy backers willing to help finance a charter operation. If you are hoping, directly or indirectly, to make some money running your charter, there are riper markets to approach than rural ones. Even if you hope to do good, but want to be sure you have a solid financial basis, there are better places to launch than in a rural area.
I see nothing here to disagree with. And the situation now in Washington County back up Peter’s statements 99,9 percent.
Unfortunately, neither the staff or the board of the state charter commission have apparently done their due diligence and understand the realities of rural locations. If they had, they should have advised the handful of folks wishing for a charter school that the deck was decidedly stacked against them in Washington County.
Of the members of the present charter board, none of them are from a rural area. This needs to change.
Editor’s note: A number of people try to compare the University Charter School on the campus of the University of West Alabama in Sumter County to the Washington County situation. This is apples to oranges. There are no similarities. I am very familiar with the school at UWA and support it wholeheartedly.
But the success it is enjoying would not be possible without the support of UWA, their college of education and UWA president Ken Tucker. A tremendous amount of research and preparation went into their proposal. They had a location. They did not have to hire a management firm. They had done their homework and fundraising. The school is housed in the same building with administration of the college of education.
Washington County has none of this. Sumter County’s public school system is rated as a D on the state report card. Washington County is a B. The demographics of Sumter County are 24 percent white and 75 percent African-American. However, the school system is 98 percent African-American. This is proof that the community as a whole does not support the public schools. This is in stark contrast to Washington County as we pointed out here.
Don’t be fooled by those who want you to believe that the circumstances in Washington and Sumter counties are the same. Not even close.