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Charter schools are a controversial issue across the country, but perhaps even more so in rural areas where cash-strapped districts with dwindling student enrollment must grapple with the possibility of losing both students and funding to a new school. Despite this controversy, many rural districts across the country have embraced charter schools and used state laws to their advantage to reclaim and control schools in their communities.
The first rural charter school in Mississippi will open next August in the Delta town of Clarksdale. The Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School, which was the only charter school approved by the state’s authorizer board this year, will expand over the next few years to serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Rural charter schools make up the minority of charter schools in the nation. Only 16 percent of the nation’s more than 6,900 charter schools are in rural areas, although some states, like California and Wisconsin, have a high number of these schools, at 114 and 62 respectively. Like other rural public schools, rural charter schools have to grapple with challenges like small student populations, high transportation costs, and a lack of facilities that are suitable for school use.
Nationwide, and in Mississippi, rural districts often fight the creation of charter schools; when students leave a district school, per-pupil money for that student leaves as well. Even a small number of students leaving can be a blow to rural districts, which have high fixed costs, especially for transportation. In states like Mississippi, where schools have been underfunded for years, the effect of rural charters could be devastating, say charter school opponents.
“We are fighting to keep doors open in our small schools,” said Miskia Davis superintendent of the Sunflower County Consolidated School District, at a panel discussion hosted last week in Indianola, Mississippi by Mississippi Today. “[I]f charter schools come in and attract our children, then that takes away from the population of our small schools, which forces us to have to close doors,” she added. Schools are the “heartbeat” of rural communities, when schools close, “the community slowly begins to die,” Davis said.
At the same panel in Indianola, state Rep. Abe Hudson, D- Shelby, also disagreed with shifting public school dollars to new schools at a time when the state’s current schools are in need of adequate funding. “It bothers me when we begin to have a charter school conversation and we have not yet solved the issues in public schools,” Hudson said.
At last week’s discussion, opponents of charter schools repeatedly condemned the potential loss of funds to charter schools, while highlighting the fact that the state’s current charter schools have low ratings on the state’s accountability scale. Charter school supporters present at the panels argued that improvement and growth take time. Nationwide, academic results for charter schools are mixed, although some charter schools have been more successful than traditional public schools, especially with educational student sub-groups like English Language learners. The largest body of research on charter school performance focuses on urban schools, since they make up the vast majority of charters.
Despite the controversy in Mississippi and other states over the viability of rural charter schools, individual rural communities across the country have embraced charter schools, especially where schools have been lost to consolidation, or where charters are viewed as an answer to the needs of community industries. In Upper Carmen, Idaho, for example, the community opened a charter school after its one-room schoolhouse was closed due to low enrollment in 2005, and its students absorbed into another district through consolidation. The new charter school now serves 85 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. In Kansas, the Newton School District converted one of its schools to an agriculture-focused charter school. The change avoided a school closure and allowed the district to work on better preparing students to join the local farming industry.