Consolidation and Charter Policies Make Conflicting Claims

Last Updated: February 23, 2012

This article appeared in the February 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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Economic downturns often set the stage for calls for school and district consolidation. The argument usually goes that consolidation will save money, and (sometimes) that it will improve academics. Never mind the preponderance of evidence to the contrary.

This current downturn has seen its share of calls for consolidation. For example, House Bill 34, currently under consideration in Mississippi, would require all districts to merge into county-wide units by 2013.

In Maine, on the other hand, pending legislation would roll back parts of the state’s 2007 law that attempted to force the merger of the state’s smaller districts and create funding penalties for districts that resisted. Legislation introduced earlier this month would make it easier for towns to withdraw from their consolidated districts.

Enter charters

Now there’s a new player in consolidation battles, both those within districts and those at the state level. That player is charter schools. The rapidly expanding charter movement is creating a range of new questions about the locus of authority for public schools, the responsibility of public schools to serve all-comers, and what we really mean when we use the word “public” in reference to our schools.

Those questions weave back and forth across the territory of consolidation and its questions about who has the right to make decisions that affect entire communities and their children, the responsibilities of communities for their schools, and the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities among students.

Those questions get especially thorny in the South where consolidation — at both the school and district levels — has often mixed up with issues of class and race and played out in ways that are both complex and highly situational.

It is not uncommon, for example, for consolidation fights to be little more than thinly veiled attempts by more affluent communities to resist desegregation, often waged under the flag of “local control.” But it is also not uncommon for more powerful communities to try to force consolidation on smaller outlying rural schools, a move that usually shifts resources (and student athletes) out of smaller schools and into the larger one.

Take Alabama where all rural schools are part of county-wide districts. The vast majority of small schools closed in the past four decades have served either highly desegregated or predominantly African-American student populations. These school closures have rarely affected the racial balance of the new schools, but they have meant that low-income and African-American students are much more likely to have daily school commutes exceeding three hours.

In fact, across the country, school closures and district mergers are much more likely to be forced on the poorest rural communities and those with the least political influence. It is those communities that are most likely to lose representation on school boards and to see their schools closed and their children subjected to inhumanely long school bus rides.

Conflicting arguments

Into this already complicated mix come charter schools. Charters are generally freed from many of the rules governing regular public schools, a freedom that advocates claim enables them to be more innovative and flexible and (sometimes) more cost-effective.

Many southern states have not had charter laws, or their laws have been strict and narrowly drawn, in large part because of the complications that charters introduce into an already thorny mix of issues and history.

But recently some federal grant programs require states to have charter-authorizing laws as a condition of eligibility. And a number of state legislators have pushed expansive charter laws, often along with other measures, including elimination of teacher tenure, weakening of teacher organizations, and increased emphasis on student test scores.

The results are some emerging policies that strain their surface logic.

Last year in North Carolina, where almost all districts are county-wide and rural schools are among the most consolidated in the nation, a revision of the state’s charter law removed the cap on the number of charters. North Carolina charters are not required to provide transportation or free and reduced-priced lunches. According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, of the 100 charters currently operating in the state, only 35 provide lunch service. Oversubscribed charters must admit applicants by lottery, but they may create entrance requirements for the lottery. Further, charters may require activity fees, volunteer hours from parents, and strict behavior codes that can be difficult for families to meet. The expectation among many in the state is that charters will be largely segregated, unaccountable, and free to “counsel out” or not recruit challenging students.

In Mississippi, where House Bill 34 advances consolidation as a cost-saving measure, Senate Bills 2242 and 2294 — pending charter legislation — would shift resources from financially strapped regular schools to the new charters.

In South Carolina, the state’s poorest schools operate with woefully inadequate funding and are subject to mid-year cuts. But charter schools — including several virtual charter schools that are aggressively recruiting students with statewide ad campaigns — enjoy a funding stream that is not subject to mid-year cuts. Further, a more recent law enacted in the state now allows the formation of charter schools without local districts' input, eliminating any incentive for charters to collaborate with local school and community stakeholders.

These are shifts at the state level, but their effects are felt intensely at the local level. For example, Rural Trust has received inquiries from small communities that suspect their school is being closed because a charter group wants the building.

When state or local leaders argue on the one hand that regular small schools and districts are too expensive and should be closed and then argue for authorization, funding, and autonomy for small charter schools — especially when those charters are not held to standards of equity or transparency — something is wrong. These arguments do not really seem to be about costs. Nor do tjhey appear to be about making sure that all children get the education they deserve — and that our country needs for them to have.

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News coverage of Maine legislation:

Read more from the February 2012 Rural Policy Matters.