When public conversation turns to charter schools, much of the attention is focused on urban students. In the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s recent report, they highlighted that charter school enrollment growth across the country was concentrated in America’s big cities. The Los Angeles Unified School District alone has 150,000 students attending charter schools, which to put into perspective is about half of Idaho’s total K-12 public school enrollment.
Research on Idaho’s changing population has predicted an overall fall in school-aged children in the state’s rural areas through 2019. Such trends are similar for rural areas across the United States. In 2013, the United States had 14.8 million students located outside urbanized areas (urban areas defined as 50,000 residents or more), down from 18 million students in 2011. The unique struggles facing these rural students is apparent in Idaho, where 88 percent of school districts are located in rural areas and only 52 percent of high school seniors go on to postsecondary education.
In contrast to nationwide declining rural student populations, Idaho’s rural charter school enrollment is growing—increasing 19 percent between the 2013-14 to 2014-15 school years. This growth of 506 charter students may seem like a pittance when compared to districts like Los Angeles Unified, but put into context, this student growth accounts for 77 percent of the total brick and mortar charter school growth in Idaho last year. The magnitude of these 506 charter students becomes more evident considering that enrollment in all of Idaho’s district-run rural public schools actually declined by 237 students.
Looking closer at one of Idaho’s rural communities, Bingham County in eastern Idaho has seen stagnant or declining enrollment in its district-run public schools over the last three years (Table 1). We would expect a similar decline in the county’s four charter schools, but instead, those schools have almost doubled their total enrollment over the same time.
As national conversations focus on the role of charter public schools in large urban districts, the 16 percent of students enrolled in charter schools located outside of urbanized areas can get overlooked. But, if Idaho’s recent rural charter school growth is an indicator, changes to the makeup of school choice are also happening across the country’s small and rural communities.
The effect of this charter school growth is hard to measure in smaller communities, but we know that rural students face unique challenges in accessing the same level of opportunities made available to urban students. Charter schools can be harbingers of innovative educational solutions, which could provide new high-quality opportunities to rural communities across the country.
More can be done to follow the trends and understand the impact of the growing charter school populations in rural communities like Bingham County, Idaho. We need to see what is working, what is not, and to offer opportunities to discuss how best to serve these young people in coming months and years. Groups like the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho have begun the conversation with research around dual enrolment, college readiness, technology, and demographics in rural charter schools. But, as always, there is more work to be done on this front.