Walton Rural Life Center – Exhibit A that Kansas has no real charter schools

David DorseyEducation

What if there was a public elementary school that took a different approach to teaching and learning? And this school became so popular modular buildings had to be installed and students had to be turned away. It would continue to expand to accommodate the increased demand, right?

Not in Kansas. In Kansas the school could face closing, because this isn’t a “what if” story. It’s reality. The school in question is Walton Rural Life Center (WRLC), a K-4 elementary in the small, central Kansas town of Walton, part of the Newton (USD 373) school district.

WRLC is technically a public charter school. “Technically” because it isn’t really a charter school – it’s one in name only. What makes WRLC different is that it has an agricultural-based curriculum, but don’t let the name fool you. According to a former principal, the school isn’t there to teach kids to be farmers. The school uses a hands-on teaching and learning approach that incorporates different aspects of agriculture in the curriculum. And it is very popular. The school has a “build it and they will come” attractiveness. According to this article in the High Plains Journal (Dodge City), 117 of the 153 students are bused from outside Walton. (And to think Education Commissioner Randy Watson has publicly proclaimed that school choice wouldn’t work in Kansas because the state is “too rural.” Hmmm….)

Actually, it’s more of a “pull-out” school inside a traditional school district. WRLC is run by the district, funded by the district, the teachers are district employees, they operate in a district building, et cetera, et cetera. That means the school doesn’t control its future, it operates at the whim of the Newton School District. Which brings us to the problem at hand. Newton is considering a bond election that could include closing the current WRLC location and moving it into the city of Newton. But being a charter school, WRLC must have the ability to control their future, don’t they? Not in Kansas.

You see, Kansas law allows only school districts to authorize charter schools. Is it any wonder there are only 10 charter schools in the state – all of them arms of their sponsoring districts? Giving school districts that kind of exclusivity is akin to granting the local chamber of commerce the authority to decide what businesses can set up shop in town. The Kansas charter school law is so bad, it is considered the worst in the country, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). So much for being a true charter school.

It is worth watching to see what the USD 373 board does and how it ultimately impacts this school.  If WRLC were a real charter school, it wouldn’t be subject to such forces. It would continue to thrive because a successful public charter school would welcome the challenge of higher demand, not be a problem pursuant to a strategic plan, as WRLC finds itself. Serving students is exactly what public charter schools are intended to do, not be a cog in the wheel of a traditional public school district.

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