In Starbuck, Minnesota, parents were devastated to learn that the local school district, a major employer in the area and bedrock of the community, was set to close due to declining enrollment. Instead of attending their local school, students would have to bus over to the next town. But thanks to Minnesota’s charter school laws, parents, teachers, and community volunteers banded together to open Glacial Hills Elementary, a community-run charter school that serves 91 students, including several students with special needs. Though operating such a small school is not without its challenges, small class sizes, frequent outdoor activities, and a focus on special education have helped Starbuck children excel academically without leaving their town.
In Questa, New Mexico, population 1,770, the public schools are alive and well, but 50 K-8 students have opted to attend Roots and Wings Community School. Founded by New Mexico educators who spent two years building relationships with local officials and parents before opening their school, Roots and Wings focuses on expeditionary learning and extended outdoor activities in a multigrade classroom setting. Students at this unique school consistently score higher on state reading and math tests than their public school counterparts and with 76% of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, the school is also providing high-quality education to economically disadvantaged students.
In Bristol, Florida, a town of only 996, a family of educators opened a special needs private school after years of watching children with autism, Phelan-McDermind syndrome, and other challenges struggle through public school. Today Gold Star Private Academy serves 17 students with a wide spectrum of special needs and allows parents to access the care their children need without moving to a bigger city.
These schools, along with countless other charter and private schools and microschools serving small towns, show that school choice is a boon to every community regardless of size.
Many of the fiercest holdouts against school choice in states that would otherwise be open to applying free market principles to education are lawmakers from rural areas. The first case generally made against school choice from the perspective of rural communities is that a lack of school options makes the program unbeneficial to rural students. However, the lack of school choice in rural areas is greatly exaggerated. Around 7 in 10 rural families live within 10 miles of a private elementary school. Additionally, supply grows to meet demand, and as more families are equipped with the resources to choose their child’s school, microschools, charter schools, and private schools will rise to meet a variety of learning needs.
A second major concern from rural communities is that school choice programs will divert funds and students from public schools. Many rural school districts are already struggling with declining enrollment and depend heavily on every per-pupil dollar to cover salaries and maintain facilities. Rural school administrators, teachers, and parents fear that losing just a dozen students to a private or charter school would exacerbate challenges such as teacher shortages and force schools to discontinue sports teams or other extracurriculars due to a lack of students and lack of funds.
However, the evidence demonstrates these fears are unfounded when school choice is actually implemented. Florida, a state with 30 rural counties and over 1 million residents in rural towns, offers several scholarship programs for students to attend alternative schools. Seventy percent of rural students qualify for a scholarship and the number of charter and private schools in rural areas has risen considerably since scholarships were implemented. Yet private school enrollment has only seen a 2.4% increase since 2012. Even when universal school choice is implemented, most students continue to attend the local public school while those who may need a different program, perhaps due to special needs or a specific academic interest, have options.
Florida also demonstrates in example after example that rural areas are more than capable of accommodating multiple schools. No schools in rural Florida have closed due to competition, yet there is a flourishing of religious schools, special needs schools, magnet schools, and other alternatives to the assigned public school.
In Arizona, school choice has improved academic achievement for rural students in all schools. Arizona enacted tax-credit scholarships in 1997 and later education savings accounts in 2011. Since that time, test scores in rural scores have far outpaced rural areas in states without school choice. From 2007-2019, Arizona’s rural schools saw a 21-point combined increase in reading and math scores on the NAEP, while nationally rural school scores dropped 2 points. Even after the pandemic, test scores of rural students in Arizona were up 9 points from 2007 while nationally rural students dropped 17 points.
It is worth noting that many parents in rural communities support school choice. Though anti-school choice advocates prefer to amplify the voices of those who fear irreparable damage to the rural public school system, 88% of Republican voters in Texas voted “Yes” on a recent school choice ballot proposition, with some of the strongest support coming from counties with less than 100,000 residents. Similarly, in Oklahoma, 70% of rural residents polled support school choice.
The beauty of school choice is the flexibility to create a highly adaptable education system that works best for students in a variety of circumstances. Though school choice would look very different in Granbury, Texas (population 11,000), Celeste, Texas (population 800), and Houston, Texas (population 1.3 million), it still works!
Rural students are as diverse in their educational needs as students in the largest cities and deserve a variety of options. Far from devastating public schools, school choice uplifts communities and students, particularly when lawmakers are careful to consider what it will take to make school choice work in rural communities by easing restrictions on charter schools, ensuring sufficient funding for rural public schools, and giving school districts the freedom to design systems that work best for their students. During this legislative session, representatives from districts of all sizes must prioritize meaningful school choice legislation to create the best outcomes for every student.