ERIC Identifier: ED425896
Publication Date: 1999-01-00
Author: Collins, Timothy
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Charter Schools: An Approach for Rural Education? ERIC Digest.
Charter schools have emerged in the 1990s as a prominent and controversial
school reform idea. This Digest describes characteristics of charter schools,
outlines some tentative research findings, discusses advantages and
shortcomings, and summarizes challenges rural communities might face in starting
such a school.
WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED ABOUT CHARTER SCHOOLS
In some ways,
charter schools are traditional and tap historic rural roots of public
education. They give parents, students, and educators public school alternatives
based on the idea that competition will bring educational innovations (Thomas,
1996). But there is potential for controversy, especially in poor rural
communities with limited financial and educational resources to support
Since Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991, 32 other states
and the District of Columbia have passed similar legislation (Hirsch, 1998). The
Center for Education Reform (1998) estimated 1,129 charter schools existed
nationwide in September 1998. Most schools were in the South and West. Half were
in three states: Arizona, California, and Michigan. Almost another quarter were
in four other states: Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas. While the
number of charter schools has increased rapidly since 1991, these schools
represented only about 0.5% of public school students in charter states during
the 1996-1997 school year (RPP International, 1998). It is unclear how many were
in rural areas.
Differences in state laws bring wide diversity in the organization,
operation, and philosophies of charter schools. Some states give charter schools
considerable autonomy, while other states exercise more control. The charter
sponsor may be a school district, college or university, state education agency,
teachers, parents, or other community members (Molnar, 1996).
Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (1997) says charter schools offer
autonomy in exchange for accountability. Schools receive freedom and a limited
time (often five years) to experiment with organization, curriculum, and other
aspects of the school (also see California Department of Education, 1992, and
Harrington-Lueker, 1994). The autonomy has a price; if the school cannot improve
student performance, its charter can be suspended or revoked. In essence, the
charter is a contract between those starting the school and an official body,
such as a school board or state education agency (McCotter, 1995).
Two studies funded by the U.S. Department of Education offer a detailed look
at charter schools nationwide (RPP International and University of Minnesota,
1997; RPP International, 1998; Hirsch, 1998). The ongoing studies will not deal
with academic achievement for at least another year, but they have already
provided valuable information. First, individual states vary in how they define
the number, type, and operation of charter schools; who grants the charters; who
may start the schools; who sets personnel policies; and the ultimate impact on
public schooling. Arizona and Colorado provide examples of this variation with
regard to who grants (sponsors) the charters. Applicants in Arizona seeking to
establish a charter school submit a written proposal to a sponsor, which may be
either a school district governing board, the state board of education, or the
state board for charter schools. A charter school proposal can be for a new
school or for an existing school (Arizona Department of Education, 1998). In
Colorado, parents, teachers, and community members may develop a charter school
application. The group must negotiate with the local school board on autonomy.
No minimum size is defined, but the school must be nonsectarian and cannot be
home-based or an existing private school (Windler, 1998). While charter schools
are part of the local district, in practice, they have great autonomy (Education
Commission of the States, 1997).
Second, there is no "typical" charter school, but they tend to be small (60%
have fewer than 200 students) and newly created schools (60%) instead of being
established schools converted to charter status. Compared to statewide averages,
they tend to have a similar racial composition, a slightly lower proportion of
students with disabilities, a lower proportion of limited-English-proficient
students, and about the same proportion of low-income students.
Third, parents and students tend to choose charter schools because of
dissatisfaction with public schools. Parents and students are attracted to
charter schools because of their high standards, small size, and supportive
environment. Program flexibility or a highly structured school environment also
Finally, according to U.S. Department of Education funded studies, charter
schools tend to have different grade configurations from other public schools,
such as kindergarten through grade 12, kindergarten through grade 8, and
ungraded schools (RPP International, 1998).
Other studies have shown charter schools may focus on a particular subject
area, such as agribusiness (Mahtesian, 1998); interdisciplinary curricula or
technology; more traditional, back-to-basics curricula; or innovative
instruction. Some charter schools serve diverse student populations, and some
are inadequately funded or housed (Medler, 1997).
Generally, charter schools are intended to produce high-performing students
(Sautter, 1993). Reasons for starting charter schools include encouraging
innovative teaching, creating professional opportunities for teachers, promoting
community involvement, and improving student learning and performance-based
accountability (Molnar, 1996).
Charter schools remain experimental, and it is too soon to judge their
effectiveness (Medler, 1997). So far, results appear mixed; hard data are
lacking and much evidence is anecdotal. Pipho (1997), for example, notes both
success stories and tales of mismanagement. Based on early evidence,
Harrington-Lueker (1994) questions whether charter schools can deliver
high-quality programs or serve low achievers well. Thomas and Borwege (1996)
point out that the rural Minnesota New Country Charter School  has received
national recognition for its course-free structure, individualized learning, and
technological emphasis (also see Thomas, 1996, and Nathan, 1996). The school,
which occupies three storefronts in Le Seur (MN), is able to reallocate its
resources to fund academic programs and technology because it has no
administrators. Hirsch (1998), who briefly reviews research findings from
various states, says studies of academic performance are inconclusive and show
both successes and failures.
ADVANTAGES AND SHORTCOMINGS
Pipho says the unifying
philosophy of charter school proponents is based on the "free-market idea of
breaking the monopolistic hold of local school districts and the freedom of
offering new kinds of alternative schools" (1997, p. 1). This premise is the
flashpoint of controversy with defenders of traditional public school systems.
Several observers have outlined arguments for and against charter schools
(McCotter, 1995; Harrington-Lueker, 1994; Molnar, 1996; O'Neil, 1996; and
Advocates argue that charter schools
to be small, which allows increased attention for students;
public schools operating outside the establishment, which could help change
existing public schools;
performance and standards;
creative and innovative approaches without excessive bureaucracy and rules;
for something, such as a particular set of values or pedagogy;
more options for parents and children;
new teaching opportunities;
responsibility for results, not inputs, such as time spent in class;
under the direction of parents and community members;
able to reach dropouts and other at-risk students;
failing schools; and
help deal with the next enrollment boomlet. Opponents warn that charter schools
unable to waive rules seen as barriers (e.g., health and safety regulations,
the fact that parents' decisions on where to school children are based not only
on academics, but also on proximity of the school, work schedule, after-school
care, and extracurricular activities;
competition, which means economic ideas predominate, not educational ideas;
virtually impossible to establish in poor areas because it is costly to create
surplus capacity for schooling that competition requires;
the potential for use of public funds for private or home schooling;
few students due to the limited number of charters;
competition for scarce dollars and result in net financial loss to a school
district because students attending the new school do not necessarily reduce the
sponsoring organization's costs;
privatization of education, although education historically has been a public
public schools with special interest curricula;
becoming elite facilities, doing little for at-risk students;
isolation based on race or ethnicity;
shown neither a logical nor demonstrated relationship to increased achievement;
make school boards legally responsible for schools they don't control; and
CHARTER SCHOOLS AND RURAL AREAS
Mixed research findings
suggest charter schools are not a panacea for rural education reformers. Even
so, charter schools work well in some rural areas, and may offer educational
alternatives to rural communities. Depending on state law and local conditions,
rural communities may be able to set up charter schools that are
community-based, educationally appropriate to local needs, innovative,
responsive to accountability measures, and focused on student success. Rural
communities with a history of community cooperation and inclusiveness, a vision
that allows students to pursue educational alternatives, and the desire for a
sustainable small school could provide fertile ground for a charter school (for
example, Thomas & Borwege, 1996).
There are caveats. Nearly all charter schools face obstacles (RPP
International and the University of Minnesota, 1997; RPP International, 1998)
that could be formidable in rural areas, including resource limitations,
conflicts with other educational entities, and regulatory issues. Kusimo (1998)
describes the current trend toward racial segregation in the rural Black Belt.
After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision,
all-White schools were set up in the South using public funds. Charter-granting
organizations would need to guard against the possibility of charter schools
being used as a contemporary mechanism to advance resegregation.
Many rural areas are resource poor, and shortages of start-up or operating
capital and inadequate facilities could cause problems for a charter school. It
is important to have strong community support that includes backing from
educators, financial and in-kind contributions, and a continuing development
effort (for example, see Thomas, 1996).
Many rural areas still have relatively close-knit communities, but internal
conflicts, battles with local and state educational agencies, and disputes over
regulations can damage community well-being and sap the vitality of the charter
school. According to RPP International (1998), though, conflicts with state
education agencies have declined in recent years.
The charter school experiment appears dual-edged. For rural areas, the focus
on school improvement might unify citizens. But poor economic conditions and
conflicts might threaten these positive efforts. A charter school might be
successful if a community faces the loss of its school because of consolidation
or if there is an atmosphere that supports educational alternatives. Chances for
a charter school's success depend on a community's historic context and its
citizens' will to persevere in their pursuit of high-quality education for their
1: See the Minnesota New Country School Website: http://mncs.k12.mn.us]
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