For many, public charter schools call to mind the challenges and opportunities of urban education. But around the country, a small but growing number of charter schools are serving rural communities. Rural charter schools face many of the same challenges as those in urban areas, but often with fewer resources and community services due to smaller populations and geographic isolation.
Here are five things to know about rural charter schools:
1. MORE THAN 320,000 STUDENTS ATTEND RURAL CHARTER SCHOOLS
As of the 2020-21 school year, 836 charter schools serve more than 320,000 students in rural areas. Rural charter schools make up 11% of all charter schools and serve 10% of all charter school students. Over the past 10 years, the number of brick-and-mortar rural charter schools has grown from 785 to 836 (6% increase), and the number of students they serve has grown from 251,507 to 321,441 (28% increase).
2. RURAL CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE CONCENTRATED IN A FEW STATES
There are charter schools in rural areas around the country, but they are more prevalent in a few states. In 10 states, more than 25% of charter school students are in rural charter schools: Alabama, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, and Wyoming. California, Texas, and Florida have the largest numbers of students in rural charter schools. And Hawaii has the highest proportion—almost half of all charter schools in Hawaii are rural and more than 28% of rural students in Hawaii attend charter schools.
3. CHARTER SCHOOL AUTONOMY AND FLEXIBILITY CAN MITIGATE OPERATIONAL CHALLENGES
Opening or growing a charter school in a rural community with limited resources may present significant operational challenges. These may include finding a school building, transportation, staffing to provide a range of courses, internet connectivity, athletics, and more. But rural charter schools have more autonomy and flexibility to find solutions for the challenges inherent in operating in remote areas and can offer a lifeline for small communities.
4. CHARTER SCHOOLS GIVE RURAL COMMUNITIES ACCESS TO INNOVATIVE SCHOOL MODELS AND PEDAGOGY
Charter schools may also bring innovative school models to communities that historically only had access to one public school option. These could include one-room schoolhouses, Montessori practices, project-based learning, blended learning, STEM, classical, and language or cultural immersion. They also could have the flexibility to serve nontraditional students, such as those involved with the juvenile justice system, pregnant or parenting students, or students in foster care or experiencing homelessness.
5. RURAL CHARTER SCHOOLS CAN SUPPORT NATIVE CULTURE
Did you know that charter schools can be designed to serve Native populations too? A disproportionate number of cultural and language immersion schools are located in rural areas—30%—largely driven by schools designed to serve American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian populations. Especially in rural remote areas, charter schools serve disproportionately more Native students. For tribal communities that bear the weight of generations of historical trauma, ownership over their schools is critical and charter schools can offer a different type of local control.
Learn more in our report on Charter Schools in Rural Areas.
Fiona Sheridan-McIver is the director of policy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.