guest perspective

Rural Americans helped elect Donald Trump, but his ideas won’t help their schools. What will?

PHOTO: Alan Richard
The school in Bethune, Colorado, is among the rural schools and districts across the U.S. that struggles to find the resources to operate.

Rural and small-town voters helped Donald Trump win the White House this month. Some of those voters are now counting on him to bring change to their communities.

Whether that happens will be determined, in large part, by education. But rural schools often get little attention from our nation’s leaders, even though nearly 9 million students attend them — more than the enrollments of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and, incredibly, the next 75 largest school districts combined.

The challenges students face in many of those rural places are equally staggering. In 23 states, more than half of all rural students are from low-income families, the forthcoming Why Rural Matters report shows. Two years ago, that was true of only 16 states.

As the chair of the board of the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust and a longtime education reporter, I’ve spent much of my career visiting these schools. And the central idea Trump has offered so far for improving education — providing billions of dollars in exchange for expanding school choice — makes little sense in most of those communities.

Rural students and families often have no viable choices beyond their local public school. That’s especially true for children of color in the rural Southeast, Southwest, and on Native American lands. In these areas, the next-closest school can be very far away. Trump’s vouchers, therefore, would rarely be a reasonable option. Charter schools aren’t prevalent in rural areas either, and likely never will be, given the expense of running isolated schools.

So if Trump’s school choice plans would have little impact on rural America, how could he and other leaders make an impact in the thousands of schools in places that supported him the most? What do they really need?

First, financial resources are flat-out scarce in many rural schools, and that leads to a far lower quality of education for students in poor communities.

If you don’t believe it, just go where I have in recent years. There’s Carrollton, Mississippi, where the county schools superintendent surrendered most of his own salary to help keep his destitute district afloat. No one there has ever discussed offering Advanced Placement courses.

The chicken-coop-turned-locker-room.
The chicken-coop-turned-locker-room.

When a mother in the all-black public schools there asked the school board to consider upgrading the old chicken coop her son’s high school football team used for a locker room, a white board member’s response was: If folks didn’t like it, maybe they didn’t need a football team. Meanwhile, Mississippi lawmakers disregarded a majority of voters statewide to increase basic school funding — by requiring more than a simple majority vote.

In Bethune, Colorado, about three hours east of Denver near the Kansas line, roughly 130 students attend school in a district that’s virtually bankrupt from state-imposed caps on local taxes. There were no foreign languages taught when I visited in 2015, despite a growing Hispanic community. They had art only because a child’s grandfather volunteered to teach it.

These communities are far from big urban and suburban school districts that spend generously on a per-student basis, and they need more money from the federal government and from their states. The funding in Trump’s plan could make a big difference: There’s often no other way for these schools to offer the classes and services students need. But tying those benefits to school choice doesn’t make sense. These districts can barely afford to operate the schools they have.

(Trump could also work to funnel a greater share of federal education funding to rural and small-town areas. But it won’t do the country much good to slash education budgets for other areas, and if his massive tax cuts bleed away the federal budget, it could harm students everywhere.)

A less-discussed, but no less important, issue is racial segregation, which continues to have a catastrophic impact on some rural schools.

In Summerton, South Carolina, population 1,000, where the first and most important of the cases that formed Brown v. Board of Education began, the public schools serve mainly African-American students while a small private school serves mainly white students. It’s been that way since the 1970s, a few years after court-mandated desegregation finally reached most majority-black communities in the South.

Hundreds of small private academies, once founded for the purposes of segregation, continue to thrive in the Black Belt from the Carolinas into Texas. Many white families in these areas have already made their own school choice, and vouchers in these communities would only subsidize this divide.

Schools can’t thrive, and school choice won’t work, without people grappling with this pervasive issue. We need new conversations about racism and the impact of such segregation — as do gentrifying urban and changing suburban areas. As the Hispanic population grows in the rural West, Midwest, and South, this will matter even more.

Trump, given his rhetoric about minorities and immigrants, can’t lead this conversation. So it will be up to local and state leaders, educators, and families to foster deeper dialogue. This isn’t easy, but I’ve seen powerful connections built across race and class through the Rural School and Community Trust’s programs, among others. In my experience, many students and adults are eager to discuss it given the opportunity.

A few other specific steps that could help rural schools:

  • Fixing Title I: Most poor small-town and rural districts receive less money per student under the federal Title I program than larger districts do — even when those larger districts have lower poverty rates, as U.S. News & World Report recently highlighted. Understandably, larger school districts have opposed changes to those formulas. But many of those districts have a greater ability than rural systems to make up for cuts through local taxes or by shifting other resources.
  • Encouraging new early childhood approaches: Child poverty rates are actually higher in rural areas than in urban areas, exposing many students to the “toxic stress” that researchers say inhibits brain development. But many rural children lack access to high-quality early health and education programs. While President Obama has championed universal pre-kindergarten, home-visiting health and education programs are just as promising. The Trump administration could pursue “social impact” funding for such efforts, a strategy House Speaker Paul Ryan and Obama actually agree on.
  • Addressing the shortage of educators: Many rural schools can’t offer the same salaries for teachers and principals than those in wealthy areas. This exacerbates shortages of quality educators, especially in science, math, foreign languages, and special education. I often think of the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, which serves about 1,800 students across a region the size of Minnesota. While an extreme example, it’s real — and many less remote places also struggle to find the educators they need. More innovation within grow-your-own rural educator programs, and more specialized teacher preparation for rural schools, would help.
  • Improving high-speed Internet access: In an age when many urbanites work wherever they carry their laptop, many rural communities lack adequate Internet speed. That makes it harder to provide a high-quality education and harder to attract teachers those districts need.
  • Pushing community-based learning: Higher academic standards and more challenging courses may help to boost the quality of education for rural students. “Place-based learning” can accomplish a lot, too. This strategy encourages students and educators to assess local challenges and then build project-based lessons to address them. The federal government may offer funding for these programs under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, but must ensure that rural districts have help to apply for any grants.

Rural children deserve this and more from all of us — and especially from the leaders their families have put into power.

Alan Richard is a veteran education writer, formerly of Education Week and the Southern Regional Education Board, and he currently chairs the board of the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

charter politics

Betsy DeVos to charter school leaders: Your schools ‘are not the one cure-all’

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

In an address to charter school advocates, leaders, and teachers in Washington D.C., U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos appeared to chide charter supporters who oppose her push to expand private school choice.

She also criticized rules designed to ensure charter quality, but that — in her telling — had turned into red tape, stifling innovation.

“Charters are not the one cure-all to the ills that beset education,” she said at the conference of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “Let’s be honest: there’s no such thing as a cure-all in education.”

Her remarks hinted at growing divides within the school choice movement. Charter school advocates in New York, California, and Denver have been cool to the idea of expanding vouchers. The broader group has splintered on other issues, too: accountability for charter schools, for-profit charters, President Trump’s budget, and issues beyond education.

On the question of how to measure school quality, DeVos continued to send mixed messages. On the one hand, she praised the National Alliance for having “proven that quality and choice can coexist.” On the other hand, she criticized efforts to ensure that schools are high-quality through “500-page charter school applications.”

This touches on a longstanding debate about how much regulation charter schools need — and who should provide it.

Research released earlier this week showed that there is significant variation in test score performance among different charter school networks, and that for-profit and virtual schools lag behind. DeVos has supported both types of schools.

“A system that denies parents the freedom to choose the education that best suits their children’s individual and unique needs denies them a basic human right,” said DeVos. “It is un-American, and it is fundamentally unjust.”

Other research has found that when charter schools are closed because of poor performance, student achievement increases. Yet market-oriented choice advocates often suggest that parents are in the best position to decide which school is a good fit for their child, and test scores shouldn’t be the sole basis for those decisions.

When asked during a brief question and answer session with Derrell Bradford — a supporter of school choice from the group 50CAN — where she stood, DeVos did not offer a specific answer.

“Our focus should be on not choice for choice’s sake, but choice because parents are demanding something different for their children,” she said. “For every year that they don’t have that opportunity, their child is missing out.”

Amy Wilkins, a vice president for the National Alliance, said that if a charter school is not meeting academic performance goals, “it should absolutely close,” though emphasized that the process should be done carefully with the needs of parents in mind.

She sees DeVos’s position as slightly different than her group’s.

“My sense is she’s probably a little more on the ‘choice for choice’ [side] than the Alliance is,” Wilkins told Chalkbeat.

Greg Richmond, the head of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and a prominent advocate for holding charter schools accountable for their academic results, said in an interview that he wasn’t sure of DeVos’s position on the topic.

“Clearly we’re in the robust accountability camp,” he said in an interview. But of DeVos, “I haven’t figured [DeVos] out yet.”

In her speech, DeVos also referenced a recent blog post by Rick Hess, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, whom she called a friend. “Many who call themselves ‘reformers’ have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats – a new education establishment,” she said.

Although she spoke passionately about helping low-income students escape struggling schools, DeVos only briefly mentioned President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, the brunt of which critics say would fall on poor students and their families.

“While some of you have criticized the President’s budget – which you have every right to do – it’s important to remember that our budget proposal supports the greatest expansion of public school choice in the history of the United States,” DeVos said. “It significantly increases support for the Charter School Program, and adds an additional $1 billion for public school choice for states that choose to adopt it.”

Some charter school teachers say the budget would hurt their students.

“It’s really disturbing that the same people she’s claiming she wants to help and be an advocate for are the one’s that she’s hurting,” said Carlene Carpenter, a charter school teacher in Chicago and a member of the American Federation of Teachers. “We’re hearing one thing, but in actuality what’s really happening with these budget cuts is the after-school programs are being eliminated.”

The cuts are still a proposal, and conventional wisdom in D.C. is that the plan has no shot at getting through Congress.

DeVos reiterated her view that money is not the key to improving schools, though recent research suggests more resources do in fact help schools get better. She also agreed with the idea that charter schools are not equitably funded.

DeVos’s remarks come as the National Alliance toes a careful line. The group’s president, Nina Rees, addressed that head-on in remarks on Monday.

“Let me tackle the big elephant in the room,” she said. “Donald Trump.”

“We can disagree with President Trump and disagree loudly when we believe it’s the right thing to do, but to ignore the impact of a big increase in funding at the federal level would be irresponsible,” Rees said. “It would put the interest of adults and political activists ahead of the needs of our schools.”

Rees has faced pressure from some charter school leaders after a number of them wrote an op-ed in USA Today criticizing the Trump budget. The National Alliance initially offered unmitigated praise for the proposal, though has since criticized aspects of it.

“Accepting the president’s agenda on charter schools doesn’t connect us to his full agenda,” Rees said.

a charter divide

Why for-profit charter schools are going out of style with some education reform leaders

Marshall Tuck is the last person you would expect to say it’s time to limit charter schools.

Tuck, a Democratic candidate for California schools superintendent, once oversaw a network of charter schools in Los Angeles and was heavily backed by the state’s charter lobby when he ran for (and narrowly lost) the post in 2014.

That’s why it’s surprising that one of Tuck’s first major policy announcements in his latest bid was a push to ban for-profit charter schools in California, a top priority of teachers unions.

“Educators — whether at district or charter public schools — can agree: public schools must serve students, not shareholders,” Tuck wrote. “Profit has no place in our public schools, and I urge politicians in Sacramento to make that the law.”

This fresh hostility toward for-profit charter schools extends beyond California. Across the country, more left-of-center charter school advocates are distancing themselves from for-profit charter schools. Some want to prohibit them outright.

Jeff Henig, a Columbia professor, sees this as a symptom of a broader rift, driven in part by the election of Donald Trump and appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has backed private school vouchers and for-profit charter schools.

“What may account for why this is becoming more publicly talked about is this re-opening what was always a strange-bedfellow coalition,” he said. “That cleavage is widening now, with the for-profits seeing a chance under Trump and DeVos to jump back ahead in the game and the nonprofit, progressive group worrying that they’ll be tarred by the bad-apple stories.”

In most places, charter schools are required to be run by nonprofit boards, but operations and management can be turned over to for-profit companies, often known as education-management organizations or EMOs, though some states bar this practice. As of 2014, about one in five charter students attended a school run for profit.

For years, the charter school movement was characterized by a relatively amicable alliance between progressive and conservative education reformers, with disagreements about vouchers and for-profit charters largely playing out behind the scenes.

“Those folks for many years traveled together because their main battle was against the unions and traditional public schools, and the stickiness of the status quo,” Henig said. “But there never was a meeting of the minds really among all of the charter proponents.”

For progressive charter advocates, keeping an arm’s length from for-profit charter schools may be smart politics.

“[California] is a very blue state, and an anti-for-profit position is almost certainly a majority or strong plurality opinion,” said Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, about Tuck specifically. “Especially given current national politics and the views of Betsy DeVos, this position allows him to separate himself from unpopular folks in Washington.”

Nick Melvoin, a successful candidate for L.A. school board who was endorsed by pro-charter groups, joined Tuck’s push. “We need to pass this legislation banning for-profit schools to combat the radical anti-public education agenda of Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump,” he wrote.

Shavar Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform told Chalkbeat in a recent interview, “We’re categorically opposed to for-profit providers running schools.”

John King, the former secretary of education and founder of a charter school in Boston, expressed a similar view.

“I would distinguish between the role that high-performing public charters can play in a strong public education system as opposed to vouchers and for-profit charters. I believe public dollars should go to public schools with public accountability,” King, who is currently president and CEO of EdTrust, told Chalkbeat.

“In New York, when we raised the charter cap in 2010 we banned new for-profit charters,” he added. “That seemed right to me. I would be fine with other states taking a similar approach.”

To those who favor a free-market approach, including many advocates of school vouchers, the criticism of for-profit schools is a mistake that could limit options for students who need them.

“I’m from the Malcolm X school — by any means necessary,” said Kevin Chavous of the American Federation for Children, the school choice group that Betsy DeVos used to lead. “I don’t rule out any learning modality that can help a kid.” (Chavous is on the board of K12, a for-profit virtual school operator.)

DeVos echoed that view last week in testimony before the U.S. Senate.

“Whether it’s a for-profit managed institution or a not-for-profit, if students are achieving and parents are making those choices on behalf of their children, I think those are the better measures to be oriented around,” DeVos said.

So how strong is the case against for-profit charters?

On one hand, studies comparing for-profit schools to nonprofits and traditional public schools in the same area don’t find consistent differences in performance, as measured by test scores. Nationally, as well as in Florida and Michigan, for-profit charter schools perform comparably or even a bit better.

For-profit charters do spend significantly more on administrative costs — and less on classroom instruction — than nonprofits according to one recent study, consistent with concerns about profiteering. But the authors said there is little evidence that those schools were less effective or efficient as a result.

On the other hand, the largely for-profit sector of virtual charter operators have harmed student achievement — often dramatically, according to multiple studies. They have also proven politically influential, in a way that critics say helps keep struggling schools open.

An extensive analysis of charter schools in North Carolina found that the practice of contracting management out to for-profit companies likely violates the law. The nonprofit KIPP charter schools in the state, by contrast, had governance practices that were “thorough, correct, and in compliance.”

Bruce Baker, a Rutgers professor and frequent charter school critic who has examined financial malfeasance in the sector, said the distinctions between the sectors weren’t always clear.

There are “bad actors on both sides,” he said, “but most good actors [are] on [the] nonprofit side.”