School Choice and Missouri’s Small-Town, Rural Voters

At a recent event hosted by Missouri’s Show-Me Institute and Hammond Institute for Free Enterprise, three state legislators (two Republicans, one Democrat) disclosed that the state’s small-town and rural legislators—many of whom are Republican—represent some of the most ardent opposition to school choice.

Unfortunately, we have observed similar resistance in other states. And that is unfortunate, particularly in Missouri, as the voting public—including those in rural and small-town communities—clearly supports a range of school choice policies, including tax-credit scholarships and interdistrict public school transfers, two topics that have been of interest among lawmakers and media.

Among those two issues, voter support tends to be greater than the opposition by at least a two-to-one margin. Why, then, is there so much inertia among rural legislators to fight for school choice proposals in Missouri?

Our latest Friedman/Braun Research survey shines a light on the wide disconnect between what small-town and rural voters want and what their political leaders are saying in Jefferson City.

As you can see below, public opinion right now is bleak regarding the state of K-12 education in Missouri. Residents are also pessimistic about its future. The negative feelings are detected regardless of community type. That said, we can see that small-town/rural voters appear slightly less negative and more positive than voters in other communities, particularly in urban areas.

school choice missouri
Small-town and rural voters also were significantly more likely to give their local public/district schools A or B letter grades compared to D or F grades—and the margin was nearly two-to-one. Point being, the people living in those communities tend to view their local public schools favorably.

That polling evidence noted, small-town and rural voters are also strongly in favor of school choice.

The second half of our survey asked questions about various school choice policies, including tax-credit scholarships and interdistrict public school transfers—two reforms that have generated much debate in the legislature and local and state media over the past six months.

Despite the claims of many politicians in small towns and rural areas, there is significant public support for school choice policies among their constituents. In fact, small-town/rural voters expressed a higher level of support for tax-credit scholarships even when compared to their counterparts in the urban and suburban communities.

Of those respondents who consider school choice and tax-credit scholarships an important issue, voters in small towns and rural areas are nearly three times more likely than they are less likely to vote for the pro-school choice candidate, yet their elected representatives are acting in ways that conflict with constituent preferences.

Not only are small-town/rural voters more likely to be supportive of tax-credit scholarships compared to those living in Missouri’s cities and suburbs, the polling data also suggest small-town/rural voters are more likely to favor tax-credit scholarships compared to other types of policies. The positive margin for tax-credit scholarships (+48 points) is greater by at least 13 percentage points versus other types.

When it comes to measuring intensity of voter attitudes, the best we can say is that the differences below suggest small-town and rural voters are most enthusiastic about tax-credit scholarships, compared to their demographic counterparts as well as compared to other types of choice policies. While scanning across the grid below, the highest positive intensity (+16 points) is among small-town/rural voters showing strong favorability and support for tax-credit scholarships.

In fairness to Missouri’s small-town and rural lawmakers, perhaps their constituents have not vocally expressed their opinions about school choice. But, with this survey, we now know how these communities react to such “controversial” policies. And they appear to be in favor. So why aren’t their representatives?

For more on what Missouri voters think about various education-related topics, read our full Missouri K-12 and School Choice Survey.