A New Frontier: Utilizing Charter Schooling to Strengthen Rural Education

Andy Smarick – January 2014

School choice, long an option for affluent families, has created new educational opportunities for high-need students in urban communities. In rural areas, however, just 21 percent of students had the option of enrolling in another nearby school in the 2011–12 school year.

In A New Frontier, Andy Smarick examines barriers to innovation in rural areas and offers recommendations for state policymakers in rural states who are interested in fostering a robust school choice landscape. He cautions, however, that charter schooling is not the answer for every rural district. Rather, he believes that decisions should be made according to individual community need and the impact charters will have on existing schools.

Smarick found that rural states face three challenges in chartering—but there are clear opportunities for improvement 

First, explicit and implicit caps on charter schools in rural states limit school choice opportunities. Smarick found that states with no charter laws or weak charter laws were more likely to be rural. Further, some state laws give preference to charter schools in urban areas, implicitly limiting the number of rural charters.

Second, rural charter schools face many human capital challenges. They struggle to compete with urban districts for talented candidates. And while there are many talented individuals in rural areas with unique skill sets, they lack the certification required to enter the classroom, further limiting the talent pool.

Finally, funding constraints limit the growth and development of rural charter schools. While their traditional district peers often receive funding for transportation and facilities, rural charter schools do not. 

Smarick offers several key takeaways and recommendations that could help rural policymakers address these challenges: 

  • Replace statewide charter caps and other barriers to growth with smart, flexible policies
  • Provide flexibility from teacher certification rules through alternative certification programs, alternate routes into the profession, and high-quality online instruction
  • Extend fair funding to charter schools, including funding for transportation and facilities
  • Make underutilized public facilities accessible to charter schools to help close the facilities gap
  • Leverage technology to bridge physical distances and help meet human capital needs

Full Report

Policy Brief on Idaho’s Charter Schools

Summary PowerPoint Slides