Rural Oklahomans not alone in supporting school choice


Ray Carter | January 31, 2023

Rural Oklahomans not alone in supporting school choice

Ray Carter

Polling and election results have shown Oklahomans support school choice, including strong support among those living in rural areas, despite critics’ claims that school choice won’t work in rural communities.

New polling in Texas shows rural residents in a neighboring state also share that view.

The results of a January poll conducted by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs found that 62 percent of Texans living in rural counties said they would support a policy that provides tax-funded vouchers for all parents in Texas.

Rural voters were far less supportive of school-choice proposals that excluded rural families. When asked if they would support a policy to provide low-income Texas parents in populous urban counties with tax-funded vouchers, just 43 percent of voters in rural counties expressed support.

A summary released by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs noted, “… Texans living in rural areas of the state are significantly more likely than Texans living in urban areas of the state to support giving all Texas parents tax-funded vouchers they can use to help pay for their child’s private school tuition.”

The Texas poll results are similar to results in Oklahoma.

A Sooner Survey poll conducted by Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates in January 2022 found that 70 percent of rural voters in Oklahoma supported using tax dollars to send a child to a school setting that best serves them—including private or parochial schools.

“While school administrators and others want to paint school choice as an enemy of rural Oklahoma, voters in those areas do not buy it,” wrote Pat McFerron, president of Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates. “In fact, those living in the 71 counties outside the OKC and Tulsa metros are among the most supportive of school choice (70% favor vs. 25% oppose).”

Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, who both ran as supporters of school choice, received some of their strongest voter support in rural counties in last November’s elections.

Opponents of school choice have vigorously (if self-contradictorily) claimed that school-choice programs will not work in rural areas because there are not enough private-school options or that school-choice programs will force the closure of traditional public schools in rural areas because so many families will depart for private schools.

However, recent students in two states that have long had expansive school-choice programs, including in rural areas, have rebutted those attacks.

“Rustic Renaissance: Education Choice in Rural America,” a report from The Heritage Foundation, examined Arizona data. The National Center for Education Statistics listed 224 regular school districts in Arizona in 1993, the year before choice began in that state. In 2019, there were 226 Arizona regular school districts. Since the advent of choice in Arizona, the report found there have been consolidations of rural districts in two counties, the closure of a district in a county without charter or private schools, and one new district created.

“The news of rural school districts dying because of choice seems to have been greatly exaggerated,” the Heritage report stated.

“Rerouting … the Myths of Rural Education Choice,” a study by Step Up for Students, reviewed data from Florida and found that “the myth about school choice not working in rural areas doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.”

Thanks in part to state school-choice programs, the Step Up for Students report found the share of rural students enrolled in private schools surged 70 percent between 2011 and 2021, and that 16.7 percent of students in Florida’s 30 rural counties attended something other than a district school, whether a private school, charter school, or home education during the 2021-22 school year.

“Private schools are being created to meet demand,” the Step Up for Students report stated. “The number of private schools in Florida’s rural counties has expanded over the past 20 years, from 69 to 120. Even in the most sparsely populated counties, choice is enabling supply to meet demand.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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