A common argument against school choice in rural America is that there just aren’t enough schools from which to create rural school choice. But the more you understand about choice policy and the rural-schools landscape, the more you realize this argument actually distorts the facts, obscures rural students’ needs, and undersells the tools available to families, educators, and communities.
Six points are worth keeping in mind.
1. Many schools of choice already exist in rural communities. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Center for Education Statistics, respectively, there are 814 rural charter schools and 7,045 rural private schools. These numbers alone demonstrate that options can be created and sustained.
2. Rural America is larger and more diverse than many might assume. A “rural” area is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as a population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area. An urban area contains 50,000 or more people. By those measures, about one in four U.S. students live in rural communities. These range from New England to the Deep South, from the Mississippi Delta to the Great Plains, from the Mountain West to the Desert Southwest, and from Alaska to Hawaii. Boys and girls in these areas deserve educational alternatives that meet their needs just as much as students living in urban or suburban areas. If we truly believe in the value of school choice, it would be unfair to millions of parents and their children if we simply wrote it off for a quarter of our students.
3. Not all rural communities are remote. Strong intra- and inter-district choice programs can immediately make options available to many rural students. These programs simply give children access to existing public schools. Distance can pose challenges, but smartly written transportation policies can help.
4. In a number of important cases, school choice has been used to preserve schooling options that had been in jeopardy. A school-closure or -consolidation plan—with which many rural areas are familiar—can threaten to take away a community’s neighborhood school. The right policies can empower stakeholders to either protect the school through charter conversion or replace the school through a new start.
5. Charter and private school choice laws in many states make it possible for interested educators, families, community leaders, and others to start new schools. Today’s stock of rural schools needn’t be the same as tomorrow’s. A strong charter law or private school choice program can empower education stakeholders to help shape the contours of the future portfolio of schools.
6. Online educational options are available to anyone with access to a computer and the internet.Technology, whether through fully virtual schools or a variety of online course offerings, can expand the educational options available to rural students, better leverage existing human capital, and potentially reduce costs. Done properly, a single high-quality online program can quickly match the needs of thousands of kids.
School choice is by no means the answer to every rural K-12 challenge. But in some circumstance it can certainly help. The “there aren’t enough schools” argument underestimates both the demand for options and the mechanisms available to expand them.