The people's voice of reason

Could Charter Schools Improve our Rural Communities?

A little over five years ago, prior to the Alabama charter school bill passing out of the State Legislature and becoming law, I wrote about the choices that exist everywhere in our culture except in public education. Not only do abundant choices exist in almost every realm of consumerism, Americans demand those choices.

But when it comes to public education, for some reason we tend to accept the status quo, and I think that some of that acceptance is the result of the difficulty and hard work that arises in making necessary change.

I consider myself fortunate to live in a peaceful, rural setting in South Montgomery County, far from the daily annoyances of traffic snarls and city noise. While it’s a slice of heaven on earth for me at this stage in my life, the downside to our locale for young families is the absence of educational choices for their children. We have one public school for grades K-8 (our public high school was shut down years ago) so students entering 9th grade are now bused a minimum of 25 miles to attend high school. While that might not seem significant, consider that a majority of those students who depend on the bus for transportation due to limited family resources are unable to participate in extra-curricular activities, scholastic or athletic, because they have no alternative means to return home. Worse, because these children have grown up in a relatively quiet, rural environment, traveling miles into Montgomery to be immersed in an unfamiliar urban setting for their high school years is akin to “a fish out of water” experience, and the potential drop-out rate for these students increases. The concept of a neighborhood school that fosters community has all but disappeared for those high school years.

So what does this situation have to do with charter schools?

While I still have serious concerns regarding some proposed charter schools and the risk of unknown, for-profit corporations draining resources from our education budget, the charter school conversion of an existing public school is a component of the charter bill legislation that can perhaps provide a viable alternative for some schools in Montgomery, particularly those outside the city limits. Remember, charter schools are still public schools and are bound by federals laws against any discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, disability, or national origin, in the same manner as any non-charter public school.

For the moment, put aside any conception you may have about charter schools, and imagine a neighborhood school comprised of children from varied socioeconomic backgrounds and race attending a school easily accessible with short bus rides or carpooling, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Continue to imagine that same local school providing educational opportunities across a spectrum of traditional studies, advanced studies for college prep, and vocational training for students choosing that path upon graduation. Finally, consider that same school having a governing non-profit board of neighborhood community leaders to include parents of the children actually attending the school, a board with an ability and authority to staff and fund the school, determine curriculum, and handle disciplinary issues without the layers of bureaucratic oversight of a system miles removed from the school itself.

Can you now imagine the positive impact of such a school on a community? The younger population base would once again have a reason to remain in our rural community where their parents and grandparents still reside, allowing those young families to maintain strong family relationships, and more easily care for aging family members. Additionally, a strong local school would also encourage and likely result in small business opportunities for those who desire residing in a rural setting, thereby increasing the tax base for the county.

For years we’ve heard, “so go the schools, so goes Montgomery,” and the same adage applies to communities outside the city limits, as those lacking quality educational opportunities for their residents do not grow and prosper. So why wouldn’t those of us who actually live in these rural areas want to explore options available that would allow greater local control over a school that can determine the future of our community?

One of my husband’s favorite axioms is as follows:

“Oftentimes there are no simple solutions - only intelligent choices.”

We can either continue placing Band-Aids on our problems with our local schools, or we can embrace the options provided to find solutions. Many believe a new school board is the answer, but I’m of the opinion that the problems are more deeply rooted. The path for a locally-controlled public school will not be easy or swift, as it would require the long-term commitment and hard work from parents and residents as well as the cooperation from Montgomery Board of Education, but ultimately, we do have a choice – whether or not we decide to utilize it remains the question.


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