In Light of Charter Deserts, Kentucky Offers Fertile Ground for a Reenvisioned School Choice Movement

I have to admit, I’m a bit of a nerd. I still have every assignment I ever completed in my school days in a box in my garage, and I’ve had at least a dozen arguments about the best order to watch the Star Wars movies. (It’s the “machete order;” don’t @ me.) Then, topping the list of my nerdy affinities, there’s my love of maps.

I ran across a pretty great map recently, and it’s had me thinking a lot about my home state of Kentucky and its precarious position in the school choice debate.

Created by the bright folks over at the Fordham Institute, this interactive map is part of a study highlighting “school choice deserts” across the US. These deserts, highlighted in the map above, are areas where the poverty level is above 20% and where no elementary charter schools currently operate.

Of course, charter schools aren’t necessarily the silver bullet for fixing these high-poverty communities, but areas like these are more likely to have low-performing schools. It’s just a fact. So if the families who live in these “deserts” have limited or no quality schooling options to choose from, charter schools could fill the void.

That idea has stirred up some excitement in the school choice movement, which has faced some disappointment in the past couple years as a result of stalled charter school growth. Fordham’s Michael Petrilli and Amber Northern think it’s because the charter sector has been too focused on urban areas and city limits.

“If so, perhaps it’s time to look for new frontiers,” they explain. “Are we overlooking neighborhoods in America that are already home to plenty of poor kids, and contain the population density necessary to make school choice work?”

Looking at Kentucky, the answer is surely yes. Kentucky doesn’t currently have any charter schools; they’re legal, but the state legislature has yet to establish a mechanism to fund them. However, as the Kentucky Department of Education looks to prioritize charter funding in the upcoming General Assembly session, it seems likely that the first charter schools will be ready to operate in the fall of 2019. And with that, Kentucky has a chance to re-energize the school choice movement’s playbook.

Kentucky: A New Frontier For School Choice?

Rural areas have been excluded from the ed reform conversation for too long, and that includes discussions on charter schools. But with charter growth stalling and poverty now stretching across city lines, charter operators need to rethink their approach.

The school choice movement may typically have an urban audience, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are several noteworthy examples of charters having great successes in rural areas, providing families with high-quality choices that they would not have had otherwise. In rural areas like eastern Kentucky where families are cash-strapped and short on schooling options, charters could be game changers.

From the Fordham Institute’s interactive map of Kentucky, it’s clear that high poverty levels aren’t limited to cities. Instead, the majority of Kentucky’s impoverished communities are in the rural eastern part of the state, far from the urban areas where charter schools have historically congregated.

But don’t worry about charters for a moment. In areas like these, families also face limited traditional schooling options for their children. The blue dots above represent traditional public elementary schools, and as you can tell, many of the census tracts only have one or two to offer families. That doesn’t mean the schools are great, either — many have been chronically underfunded, and several have struggled to help students reach proficiency levels in reading and math.

At a Kentucky Board of Education meeting last fall, former education commissioner Stephen Pruitt acknowledged that the situation was dire. “We have some districts that are in really, really rough shape. In the short term, they need some Band-Aids just to stay open,” Pruitt said. The problem isn’t simply mismanagement of funds or questionable business practices, he added. Rural schools have unique issues with funding and teacher recruitment, and that often translates to lower performance. In these areas, families don’t often have a lot of high-quality school options to choose from. If the school choice movement needs a new frontier, Kentucky’s choice deserts are fertile ground.

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