Hayley Glatter: What aspects of education in rural areas affect how a model favoring school choice would be implemented there?
Karen Eppley: School choice is really complicated in rural areas not only because of the distance and financial constraints that many rural families have, but also because rural schools tend to function as anchors in their communities. Rural citizens tend to be highly involved with their schools; the schools are often the social anchor of the community, and they provide services not available elsewhere, like sports, summer lunch programs, night classes, and food pantries. They also tend to be major employers. Because so many families are so heavily involved in their community schools and have these social ties, the decision to withdraw their children and take them elsewhere—whether to a charter or a private school—has effects beyond just the daily school attendance.
Glatter: Currently, how does school choice operate in these rural areas?
Eppley: Rural charter schools make up about 16 percent of all charter schools nationwide, and a report showed this number is growing. A good portion of those charter schools were formed in response to school closures and consolidations. So whereas more urban and suburban charters tend to be run by management companies such as KIPP or Edison Learning, rural charter schools are different because they are often—but not always—run by community members. A lot of times, if the district wants to close a school, a group of community members will come in and say, “Okay, close the school, but we’re going to make this charter school in place of the former district school.”
Glatter: You mentioned the important community-building functions of rural schools, so how would moving toward a model favoring school choice as Betsy DeVos supports affect public schools in rural areas?
Eppley: There can be a lot of social implications. For example, if you’re a small school and you can barely field a football team, or you can barely field a basketball team, or you don’t have enough students to do, say, mock trial, when you pull those students out, then students who have remained in the host school are at a disadvantage as well. But more often, the reasoning that you’re going to hear has to do with the finances of it. In the U.S., of the states that have charter-school law—and not all of them do—[some] require the sending school to pay for transportation to the charter school. Not to the private school, but to the charter school. So that is an enormous financial drain on the sending school in addition to the per capita [dollars] that these students [send] the charter schools. So it can be financially devastating to schools that are already operating on the proverbial shoestring.
Glatter: Do you see any rural-specific benefits a charter-school model might be able to offer?