In this post, I explore some aspects of the phenomenon of charter schools in rural America.I started out by mapping the extent of student poverty, the demographic makeup of the student population, and the “rural” locational context of rural charter schools.The maps reveal a varied rural charter school student population. While 70 percent of rural charter schools are predominantly White, the rest serve predominantly minority students.Regardless of the predominant race/ethnicity of their student enrollment, rural charter schools attract a high percentage of students living in poverty.Though most rural charter schools are located in non-urbanized areas (79 percent), a sizable percentage are in urbanized areas and urban clusters as well. The maps reveal that the geographic boundaries of rural areas are not clear-cut, in part due to the many rural-suburban-urban interlinkages.These findings provide fertile ground in which to study rural charter schools nationwide.
The topic of rural charter schools is a relatively new area of research. The aim is to begin filling in part of this information gap by examining how rural charter schools respond to the policy and market signals, and the impact of such signals on the willingness and ability of rural charter schools to serve disadvantaged student populations.
Through USDA’s Rural Development Community Facilities support program, the U.S. Education Department is providing a policy incentive for states to boost their support for rural charter schools in communities with fewer than 20,000 people.Though the design and operation of rural charter schools is not specifically meant to resolve racial/ethnic disparities in education or to specifically serve disadvantaged students, rural charter schools do have challenges serving low-income and minority students.Charter-school initiatives in the rural areas hold both promises and problems.On the one hand, rural areas with a history of civic involvement, a vision that allows households to exercise school choice options, and the desire for a sustainable small school could provide fertile ground for a charter school (Rural Policy Matters, 2011; Broton et al., 2009; Richard, 2004).On the other hand, many rural areas are economically disadvantaged and also face shortages of academically talented teachers, transportation services, start-up funds and school facilities. These are significant obstacles for charter school creation and sustainability (National Charter School Resource Center, 2011; Miller & Hansen, 2010; Wittmeyer, 2006).
I focus on the 39 states that have rural charter schools in 2010.Rural charter schools in these states account for 16 percent of the entire U.S. charter schools.The analysis looks at only one aspect of the rural charter school story – the location of rural charter schools and the variation in the socioeconomic and racial/ethnic composition of student population enrolled in them.If rural charter schools are to expand, it will be useful to examine where rural charter schools are currently operating across different states and the characteristics of students attending them, giving us insights into the workings of charter school options in rural areas.
The “rural” status of charter schools is based on the locale codes available from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and designed to be consistent with census categories and geographic regions from U.S. Census Bureau. By those definitions, rural areas are those regions outside urbanized areas and urban clusters. Urbanized areas and urban clusters are defined by population density and population. Under the NCES coding system, a school is classified as “rural” based on its geographic proximity to population centers.Rural schools are further classified into fringe, distant, and remote schools depending on the distance from an urbanized area of greater than 50,000 people or an urban cluster of between 25,000 and 50,000 people. For more information on NCES local classification system, see http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/ruraled/page2.asp) The charter schools that fall under the classification of rural therefore encompass a variety of charter school settings which include such diverse examples as rural charter schools in the farming communities in Kansas, predominantly Native Americans living on reservations, the fishing communities of the Gulf Coast, and the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina.
I have linked the NCES Common Core of Data with the Census Bureau TIGER/Line shapefiles and geocodes for the school addresses to explore the enrollment demographics and location of rural charter schoolsfor the 2010 school year.To assess the spatial distribution of rural charter schools, I cleaned and standardized the school addresses and converted them to geocoded locations. In all, I have obtained geocoded addresses for 820 of 825 rural charter schools, a geocoding success rate of 99%.
I have analyzed enrollment demographics based on five major racial/ethnic groups in the school population: Black, White, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic. I consider the predominance of one particular group if that population is equal or greater than fifty percent of a school’s population. I followed the standard practice in the education and social science research and measure poverty at the school level by using the percentage of students who apply for and were found eligible for free and reduced price lunch program (FRL).The free and reduced lunch (FRL) percentages are broken down for school-level populations being studied.The five major racial/ethnic groupings are described below.
- Black: Black/African-American persons, not Hispanic/Latino.
- White: White persons, not Hispanic/Latino.
- Native-American: Native-American persons, not Hispanic/Latino.
- Asian: Asian and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific islander persons, not Hispanic/Latino. Hispanic: Persons of any race who are Hispanic/Latino.
The next series of maps identify rural charter schools contained in urbanized areas and urban clusters, non-urbanized areas, and Native American reservations. The actual locations of these schools and the percentage of their students eligible for FRL are also divided into equal intervals and symbolized as dots colored in scaled color densities from light to dark. These maps confirm the presence of rural charter schools that are considered rural but are contained in urbanized areas and urban clusters. There are also rural charter schools that are located in non-urbanized areas. A number of rural charter schools are located in geographically and tribally diverse Native American reservations. A series of location and context specific questions will be explored as we examine these maps.
The inset map at the top shows the total number of rural charter schools per state, while the inset map at the bottom shows the rural charter school percentage share of the charter school market for each state (Map 1). States vary considerably with regard to the count of rural charter schools located in rural areas, from a low of 1 to a high of 123.The highest percentages of rural charter schools are found in Wyoming, Kansas, and Iowa.The smallest percentages of rural charter schools are found in predominantly urban states on the East and West coasts.
The average percentage of students eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL), in all rural charter schools, is 35.39 percent, but there are stark differences in poverty levels across rural charter schools. The percentage of FRL students in rural charter schools are skewed towards low poverty. Map 2 reveals the following statistics: 300 rural charters have 0-20 percent students on FRL; 150 rural charters have 21-40 percent students on FRL; 142 rural charters have 41-60 percent students on FRL; 130 rural charters have 41-60 percent students on FRL; and 98 rural charters have 41-60 percent students on FRL.
There does not appear to be any group predominance for 90 out of 820 rural charters, as shown in Map 3. These schools are skewed towards low poverty. 50 percent of these schools have 0-20 percent students on FRL, which include rural charters in states such as Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Tennessee and South Carolina.
Only 11 rural charter schools are predominantly Asian.Their mean percentage of students eligible for FRL is 50.28 percent, approximately 15 percent above the national average of rural charter schools’ student poverty. One rural charter in Texas has 0-20 percent students on FRL, while rural charters in Hawaii are skewed towards higher poverty, serving between 18 percent and 83 percent of students on FRL (See Map 4).
31 rural charters are predominantly Black, or about 4 percent of the total number of rural charter schools. Their mean percentage of students eligible for FRL is 64.01 percent, approximately 29 percent above the national average of rural charter schools’ student poverty. 26 of these schools are serving between 41 percent and 99 percent of students on FRL. Predominantly Black rural charters with higher poverty levels are found in states such as Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Michigan (See Map 5).
32 rural charter schools are predominantly Native-American. Their mean percentage of students eligible for FRL is 61.22 percent, approximately 26 percent above the national average of rural charter schools’ student poverty. 24 of these schools are serving between 40 percent and 98 percent of students on FRL. Predominantly Native American rural charters are found in states such as Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon, and Alaska (See Map 6).
67 rural charters are predominantly Hispanic, or about 8 percent of the total number of rural charter schools. Their mean percentage of students eligible for FRL is 52.65 percent, about 17 percent above the national average of rural charter schools’ student poverty. 52 of these schools are serving between 21 percent and 98 percent of students on FRL. Predominantly Hispanic rural charters are found in states such as Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California (See Map 7).
575 rural charters are predominantly White, or 70 percent of the total number of rural charter schools. Their mean percentage of students eligible for FRL is 31.28 percent, approximately 4 percent below the national average of rural charter schools’ student poverty. These schools are skewed towards low poverty; 250 of them are serving 0-20 percent students on FRL. The concentration of predominantly White rural charters are found in states such as Oregon, California, Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan (See Map 8).
A comparison of rural charters found within urbanized areas and urban clusters shows the differences in student poverty levels for these two geographic regions, with is skewed towards less poverty in urbanized areas. Maps 9.1 and 9.2 illustrate the proximity of charters to an urbanized area and an urban cluster categorized as fringe, distant, or remote. Both maps show similar percentages of rural charters in fringe rural (63%), distant rural (23%), and remote rural (14%).
Maps 9.1 and 9.2
Map 10 illustrates the locations of 31 rural charter schools that are contained in Native American reservations. These schools are serving Native American populations in numerous tribal groups on reservations such as the United Houma Nation of Louisiana, the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the White Earth Ojibwe tribe in Minnesota, and the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wind River Indian reservations in Wyoming. Their mean percentage of students eligible for FRL is 48.01 percent, about 13 percent above the national average of rural charter schools’ student poverty. 13 of these schools have 0-39 percent students on FRL, while the other 18 schools have 40-98 percent students on FRL.
Map 11 shows the locations of 652 rural charter schools that are contained in non-urbanized areas. Their mean percentage of students eligible for FRL is 34.73 percent, approximately 1 percent below the national average of rural charter schools’ student poverty. 250 of these schools are serving 0-20 percent students on FRL, or about 30 percent of the total number of rural charter schools.
In summary, the foregoing maps illustrate that the majority of charter schools serving rural America are white (70%) and economically disadvantaged (4% above the national average of rural charter schools’ student poverty). Less than one-fourth (31 schools) are predominantly African-American rural charters, and predominantly Hispanic charters make up only 8 percent of the total. Approximately 4 percent are predominantly Native Americans charters, while 1 percent of the schools are predominantly Asian. Rural charter schools with no group predominance are about 11 percent of the total. Student poverty levels are most severe for rural charter schools that are predominantly African-American and Native American, which ranges between 61.22 percent and 64.01, or about 29 percent higher than the average for all rural charters. The share of student poverty levels for predominantly Hispanic rural charters and predominantly Asian rural charters are 52.65 percent and 50.28 percent, respectively. Rural charter schools with no predominant group have the lowest percentage of student poverty (30.57 percent), or about 5 percent lower than the average for all rural charters. These statistics show that addressing school choice in the rural areas will require solutions to both the poverty gap of minority student populations and economically disadvantaged conditions in rural schools.
Of course, there are other dimensions of rural charter school enrollment demographics which are not captured in this analysis. The geo-spatial analysis of rural charter schools is exploratory in its nature and limited to examining the charter demographics. I did not consider the age and grade levels of charter schools, organizational orientation, state charter school regulations such as racial/ethnic enrollment guidelines, equity provisions such as free transportation to all students, and other local characteristics all of which may have an effect on charter school demographics as found in previous charter school studies (Bifulco et al., 2009a, 2009b; Garcia, 2008; Renzulli & Evans, 2005). All such topics/dimensions remain unexplored but fruitful areas for future research in rural charter schools nationwide. Thus, future work might be helped by capturing several dimensions of rural charter school enrollment demographics based on previous studies and policy debates on charter schools in general.
1) State and local policy on transportation - Previous findings suggest that charter school enrollments are influenced by state and local policies. For example, a multi-state study of charter schools by Lacireno-Paquet (2004) found that states where transportation for charter school students is not required have lower percentages of FARL-eligible and minority students than do charter schools in states where some kind of transportation of charter students is required. In Pennsylvania, Miron, Nelson, and Risley (2002) found that charter school students travel 5.5 miles, on average, to attend a charter school. In states such as Indiana where charter schools do not receive local tax levies for transportation, the transportation issue is a de facto parental responsibility as well as a disincentive for poor families to exercise their freedom and choice. Low-income households may lack sufficient resources to transport their children to the nearest charter schools, as in the case of those living in Indiana’s rural areas who travel more than 40 miles to get to the nearest charter schools. Indeed, transportation of students is an important state/local policy in understanding how rural charter schools may attract students and families from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
2) State law on racial clauses and enrollment preferences – Notable scholars such as Amy Wells, Bruce Fuller and Robert Bifulco claim that charter school policies may have exacerbated existing inequality and stratification in urban, suburban, and rural school districts (Wells, 2002; Fuller et. al., 2003; Bifulco et al., 2009a, 2009b). Renzulli (2006) examined charter schools in states without racial clauses designed to ensure the fair representation of racial and ethnic subgroups had smaller numbers of African-American students in charter schools. While many state legislatures continue to make amendments to their state charter school laws, there are currently fourteen states that have existing racial balancing provisions designed to limit or eliminate racial isolation and imbalance in charter schools (Oluwole & Green, 2008). http://charterlaws.publiccharters.org/charterlaws/state/IN” target=”_blank”>In the case of the Indiana charter school law, charter schools could only accept students in persistently failing schools or who were enrolled in FRL programs. Further research on rural charter schools may examine how the policies enacted by states either foster or hinder charter schools’ service to certain student enrollment demographics (i.e., minority students and FRL students).
3) The number of charter schools allowed in a state – In terms of the number of schools permitted, a cap on the total number of charter schools allowed per state/school district could restrict educational alternatives to underserved populations and resource-poor rural areas. Permitting only a small number of charter schools may also impede the creation of a viable alternative to struggling public schools, as found in one study of the effect of state caps on students’ academic performance (CREDO, 2009). While state legislators and school district officials may try to handle the competition potentially introduced by rural charter schools, for example, by restricting the total number of schools, empirical work is needed to examine if these types of policies may result in artificial constraints on the market with unintended consequences for particular student targets (i.e., low-income and minority students) and academic outcomes in rural areas.
4) Types of charter schools that serve rural schools – The Charter Management Organization (CMO) movement, such as KIPP, represents one form of organizational orientation—the not-for profit form. In the case of Arkansas, a state considered as entirely rural, KIPP and Lighthouse Academies have been encouraged to establish a strong presence in rural areas. While contracting with CMOs such as KIPP is not new to education, what is empirically interesting is to examine the relationship between organizational characteristics of the schools, like CMO-management status versus stand-alone schools (i.e., parent-founded), and the enrollment demographics served. Both types of educational organizations tend to build their charters slowly and incrementally, grade by grade, over a period of years, and reach capacities well below national averages. Such enrollment strategy may be suitable to rural areas with declining enrollments, a particular problem for low-income rural districts. However, unanswered questions remain. Who do both educational organizations serve as they pursue students in rural areas? Are they reaching out to students in clear need? A recent study by Miron et al. (2011) noted that while KIPP schools served a higher percentage of African-American students and students eligible for FRL than did their local school districts, they also enrolled fewer students with disabilities, English Language Learners (ELL), and Hispanic students. Whether both types of educational organizations capture a niche market of underserved and disadvantaged populations in rural areas is largely an open field of research.
5) Other local characteristics - The racial composition of a rural charter school can be fully understood only in relation to the racial composition of the state, school district, or the broader neighborhood in which it is located (Gulosino & d’Entremont, 2011; Gulosino & Lubienski, 2011; Lubienski, Gulosino, & Weitzel, 2009). Knowing what percent of rural charter schools in the nation or a state are predominantly white or predominantly minority (i.e., Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native-American) does not tell us anything about how they are physically distributed in school systems: they could be distributed into largely black, traditional public schools or distributed fairly equally among traditional public schools. Rural charter schools’ enrollment demographics may also be influenced by pre-existing patterns of student segregation. In addition, the analysis does not show variations within many states. The maps also do not show related socio-economic conditions such as unemployment rate, household education level, median household income, or low academic achievement that might be correlated with the racial composition or poverty level of student bodies.
The final set of maps show selected student characteristics of rural charter schools within urbanized, urban clusters, and categories based on local codes (fringe, town, and rural). In particular, the differences in student poverty rates across these local classification schemes are shown. Presumably, rural charter schools based on the NCES definition of rural and non-rural status are located outside of urbanized areas and urban clusters. Interestingly, in these two categories, pockets of rural charter schools are found in both urbanized areas and urban clusters. This raises challenges pinning down a precise locational context of rural charter schools. How “rural” are rural charter schools? What portions of rural charter schools can be considered urban and suburban? Are rural charter schools locating in spatially contiguous and compact areas as a competitive response from nearby schools struggling to maintain a basic level of enrollment? Or are rural charter schools seeking to locate near preferred clients (less economically disadvantaged and more motivated parents) in order to gain advantage from meeting their needs at lower costs (e.g. transportation, marketing and recruitment, staff and teacher accessibility)? As charter schools spread in rural areas, they gain the ability to locate their schools anywhere and address the unique educational needs of families in rural areas. In the case of charter schools that locate in Native-American reservations, the geographic proximity to Native American tribes may be a reflection of the schools’ interest in a culturally-driven curriculum. More location-specific research inquiries are raised below.
1) It is logical to investigate the extent to which rural charter schools classified according to NCES/Census local codes are playing on a level playing field in terms of their access to the teaching staff, extra-curricular activities, and professional development that are essential for meeting the achievement goals required under their performance-based contracts.
2) Questions remain over the parental demand for charters in the rural areas. What are the characteristics of parents making school choices in rural charters? Are the parents’ reasons for choice in rural charters similar to those in urban and suburban charters? Will the parents’ ability and motivation to travel long distances to and from school each day influence the types of students served by rural charter schools? How do we explain the differences/similarities in the educational decisions made in the three market contexts?
3) An educational program that responds to rural contexts (i.e., charter schools that are locally responsive or “placed based curriculum”, “ethno-centric”) in terms of the natural landscapes, local culture, and values may create a tension in the general school curriculum that prepare students to excel on state tests. It may be interesting to examine the extent to which rural charter schools classified according to NCES/Census local codes are incorporating placed-based knowledge throughout school curricula vis-à-vis outcome measures such as achievement, graduation rates, student satisfaction, and community satisfaction.
Future studies of rural charter schools can provide valuable contribution on virtually all of the essential aspects of the charter school reform in rural America. It is hoped that the foregoing analysis will stimulate questions and encourage discussion and further comprehensive exploration in this area.
The views expressed in Charter Notebook blogs represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association or the U.S. Department of Education.
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The views expressed in Charter Notebook blogs represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association or the U.S. Department of Education.