I read this story with a growing sense of disgust. A businessman in Oklahoma opened a charter school in a small town to focus on career readiness and job training, functions already offered by the local public school.

This man, with no experience in education, lured 29 students to share his vision and abandon the community public school. He did so over the objections of the local school district.

Within the walls of the Academy of Seminole, eight rented rooms in a community college library, it can be hard to see why the little school has kicked up so much dust in this former oil boomtown, population 7,300. On a recent Friday, businessman and school founder Paul Campbell addressed the students, just 29 freshmen and sophomores, to tell them what it’s like to run a business.
What he dislikes? Making small talk at political events and “firing people.” What he enjoys? “I love doing something that no one thinks can be done. That’s why we’re sitting in this school.”

Campbell said the “thesis” of the school is that “on day one of your ninth grade, literally hour one … we start talking about what you want to do with your life.” Speakers have included a health care CEO, professional dancers and a speech pathologist. Academy students mapped out various careers they might pursue, and spent their first semester doing a research project on their chosen path. That focus on jobs is a direction in which more schools are headed, amid rising concern that young people are graduating unprepared for the workforce, especially in rural towns like this one. Last year Oklahoma joined a growing list of states requiring students to develop a career plan in order to graduate. And, in a sense, Campbell’s can-do, pro-business attitude fits in with the ethos of this working class, Trump-supporting town.

But while Campbell may dislike politicking, he’s had to do a lot of it to get his school off the ground and keep it going in the face of a chorus of concern from local residents. That’s because the Academy of Seminole is a rural charter school; its establishment is part of a small movement to bring this taxpayer-funded version of school choice to more remote corners of the country.

How much money will the local district lose to this charter?Will the public school lose a teacher or two? Will class sizes increase?

Oklahoma was singled out by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities as the state where general per-student funding had fallen more than any other state—by 28.2% from 2008-2018.

Because of low funding, many districts in Oklahoma offer only four days a week of school.

And we are supposed to be impressed that some egotistical businessman in Seminole, Oklahoma, has opened a charter school for 29 students?

Mike Petrilli, writing from the comfort of his think-tank perch in D.C., is delighted about the opening of a charter in a town of less than 8,000 people, where the school budget is tight. “More power to him,” says Mike.

But others say residents are right to worry about the sprouting of charters in their hometowns. Schools often play an integral role in the life of a small community, offering a central meeting place, social services and additional support. If a charter grew popular enough to draw hundreds of kids and capture those students’ share of funding allocated by the state, it could erode not just schools but the fabric of communities. Bryan Mann, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama’s college of education, has studied charter schools in Pennsylvania and noted that, while the research on rural charters is still new, these schools could pose a threat to public education.

“Choice is great, but if having choice is undermining the dominant choice that the majority of families rely on and have relied on for decades or longer, then what good ultimately is that doing?” he said.

The original proposal envisioned that the school would open with 60 students and grow to 500. It opened with 32 and three dropped out. The owner plans to expand to become a Pre-K-12 school. Imagine those three- and four-year-olds, planning their futures as workers!

The funding for the charter school comes from the districts that lost students.

But guess who else paid to open a rural school with 29 students? We did.

The academy has had to make a number of changes since Campbell first pitched his idea. Not only has the school’s approach to career preparation been refined, but Campbell decided to forego the services of the charter operator, whose use was core to his application, instead relying on Hawthorne, the head of school, in part to save costs. While the charter received $600,000 in federal start-up money and $325,000 from the Walton Family Foundation, the school’s viability will depend on additional fundraising.

Betsy DeVos supplied $600,000 in federal funds to create this job-training institution to suck money out of underfunded public schools.

Here’s a reform that would make charter schools viable: no charter should be authorized over the objections of the local school board.