“As of 2009–10, there were a mere 785 rural charter schools across America, representing just 16 percent of the national charter schools sector, and most of these schools were located in ‘rural-fringe’ communities, just outside of more populated areas. But about 1.2 million students live in “rural-remote” communities, those areas farthest away from larger towns and cities. Just 111 charter schools across the country are in these areas (and 11 of these are online or ‘virtual’ charter schools).”
This statement is found in the report A New Frontier: Utilizing Charter Schooling to Strengthen Rural Education, released in January of 2014. In it, school reform leader Andy Smarick, of the Fordham Institute and the Bellwether Education Foundation (funded by Bill Gates, Teach for America and Goldman Sachs), outlines the challenges to opening charter schools in rural areas, and how policymakers can overcome them. This report is indicative ongoing corporatization of education and privatization of public schools in urban and suburban environments, however rural areas have remained relatively immune as rural schools generally have too few students and can be too remote to make charter schools or voucher schemes profitable.
Recently, advances in technology have changed the landscape and opened up rural schools to neoliberal venture philanthropy. Venture philanthropy, is described by Kenneth Saltman in The Gift of Education as “Educational philanthropy that appears almost exclusively in mass media and policy circles as selfless generosity poses significant threats to the democratic possibilities and realities of public education.” The result is generally to increase private control of public schools, limiting union power, and relaxing teacher certification standards, despite a lack of evidence that any of these strategies have been effective.
The charter school movement has gained support from both Democrats and Republicans as the policymakers in general have accepted the business model of improvement and believe choice and competition will produce better education results. Urban school districts have borne the brunt of the charter movement, as seen in districts such as Chicago and New York, where the battles are ongoing, and New Orleans, which now has completely privatized its public education system. Rural schools, though not as prevalent in the discussion about the forces of privatization as urban, are under no less a threat of corporatization as distance education and virtual classrooms are now arising as options for rural youth.
Returning to Smarick’s report, what may be most troubling is how open it is about the corporate agenda. The report clearly outlines the ways to weaken the public in public education. He begins by suggesting there be equitable funding for public and charter schools but goes on to suggest there be additional funding sources for charters only, as well as grant programs that favor new charter schools. It goes on to tip the scales further by declaring public districts would need to provide transportation for charter students, as well as facilities. Again, these are all ways for charters to save money while having the public district financially support them. The report does not suggest what the public schools do when they are no longer able to provide for their own students.
After the policy recommendations begins the attack on certified teachers and unions. The report recommends charter schools be exempt for teacher certification requirements, and allow for organizations such as Teach for America to provide staffing. It also pushes forth the notion of teachers using online classrooms, so they would not even have to go the school site. This is referred to as the creation of an “elite remote teaching corps” who would provide the actual classroom instruction for rural students, and any schools left open would serve simply as computer labs staffed by tutors.
It is becoming clear that what is being established is a new form of school consolidation. An issue that has affected many rural communities, consolidation is the occurs when the state (or county) determines the local school is too small to be cost effective, another in a long line of capitalist solutions to capitalist problems. Students are bussed out of their communities to large regional centers. The consequences of consolidation are variable, but more often than not it creates further social and economic stress on communities, where the school not only creates employment opportunities but also serves as a source of pride for residents. Consolidation generally increases outmigration unemployment, as Thomas Lyson found in his research of school closures in upstate New York.
What is unclear is the future and sustainability of the corporate model. The goal of all neoliberal ventures are obvious, to make a profit. A profit can be made off rural schools by laying off teachers, hiring new non-union teachers for lower pay, selling technology to rural schools, closing the smaller, less cost effective schools, and using public money to fund all these ventures. What is the plan then, when the schools are gone and all students are taught by the remote teaching corps? More importantly, what happens to the community?
While these questions certainly present a dim future for rural America, there is hope. Rural communities are, and will continue to be natural sites of resistance. Rural scholars have shown that schools can have considerable effect on the value rural youth place on their communities. By bucking the neoliberal trends and providing students an education contextualized to the rural environment, rural youth can be empowered to not only take pride in their community, but also push back against the corporate capitalist ideology that has been internalized in the education system in general. Neoliberalism is an ideology of placelessness, devaluing any connection between people and their homes. A place-based education for rural youth encourages students to become political actors. By taking up causes and making change in their own communities, they can overcome the hegemony of neoliberalism and affect global change.