Charter schools 101: Why would we need charters in suburban, rural, or “good” districts?

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Susan Pendergrass

In addition to fielding questions about what a charter school is, and whether charters are private or public schools, I’m often asked: Aren’t charter schools intended for failing urban districts serving low-income students of color? They do serve those communities well, but let’s talk about who else they serve.

While it’s true that over half of all charter schools are in urban districts, in the 2015–16 school year there were nearly 1,800 suburban charter schools and over 1,200 in small towns and rural communities.

It turns out that curriculum really matters to middle-income parents, and many gravitate to charter schools because they offer educational models that aren’t available in traditional public schools. Some of these models are more rigorous, some are more open and creative, and some offer unique programs. There are hundreds of examples of outstanding suburban and rural charter schools, but I’ll offer just a few to ponder.

Take the BASIS charter schools: In the 2017 US News rankings of the top 10 public high schools, nine were charter schools and five of these were BASIS charter schools. BASIS currently operates 20 charter schools in Arizona, Texas, and Washington, DC. Most of them are suburban, and they serve populations that reflect their communities. Like all charter schools, BASIS schools don’t have admissions tests—students are admitted by lottery. But once they’re in, it’s not easy. In this preschool through grade 12 program, students take biology, chemistry, and physics before they start high school and all high school students are expected to pass at least 6 AP exams. The key to success in BASIS schools is having highly professional teachers who are subject matter experts. Teachers are given considerable autonomy in their classrooms, but all of them, even kindergarten math teachers, must have a college degree in the subject they teach.

Or, what about the NYOS (Not Your Ordinary School) charter school in Austin, Texas? This school was founded twenty years ago and offers smaller class sizes, year-round school and “looping” (in which a student stays with the same teachers for several years). NYOS serves 950 students in grades K through 12, but they have 3,000 more students on a waiting list for a spot.

But many small towns are taking advantage of charter schools also. Graysville, Indiana opened Rural Community Academy in 2004 when their local school was slated to close. Since then, the school has grown to 150 students and some credit it with reinvigorating the community, saving the post office, and bringing several new businesses to the area.

Rural charters aren’t always opened to save a school, though. The Upper Carmen Public Charter School in Idaho was founded in 2005 “to complement the existing public school system by providing an alternative learning environment to enable more students from Lemhi County to be successful.” This school serves no more than 90 students and emphasizes personalized learning that allows students to progress at their own pace, rather than be grouped by age. Upper Carmen Charter School has consistently ranked among the top ten percent of schools in Idaho.

Asking if there are any good charter schools outside of major cities is like asking if there are any good restaurants outside of major cities. Of course there are. Teachers, parents, and community leaders with great ideas for educating kids are everywhere. Charter schools aren’t a perfect fit for every student, but they’re a great fit for the students they serve.

Susan Pendergrass is the Director of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute in Missouri. This blog was originally posted on their Show-Me Daily blog.