Study finds school choice benefits rural students
December 6, 2022
In this year’s Oklahoma elections, school-choice opponents repeatedly claimed that allowing education funding to follow students to any provider would destroy rural schools and produce no benefit for most rural students.
Voters ultimately rejected those claims and overwhelmingly supported school-choice candidates. The strongest support for school-choice candidates often came from rural counties.
Now a new study from Florida shows that school-choice programs have benefited rural students in that state without harm to local public schools.
“It’s a myth repeated so often and for so long it’s come to be accepted as fact: School choice won’t work in rural areas. But just like so many other myths about school choice—that it destroys traditional public schools, that it doesn’t lead to better academic outcomes, that it lacks accountability—the myth about school choice not working in rural areas doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” wrote Ron Matus and Dava Hankerson, both officials with Step Up for Students.
In their report, “Rerouting … the Myths of Rural Education Choice,” Matus and Hankerson reviewed data on school choice participation in Florida’s rural counties. The report defined a rural county as any county having less than 100 people per square mile. Thirty counties in Florida met that definition while in Oklahoma 68 counties fall into that category, according to publicly available data.
Matus and Hankerson found that the number of state-supported private school choice scholarships grew in Florida’s 30 rural counties from 1,706 income-based choice scholarships in the 2011-12 school year to 6,992 in 2021-22. Statewide, more than 70 percent of families are eligible for Florida’s income-based scholarships and the average annual family income for students on scholarship is $37,731.
The report found the share of rural students enrolled in private schools also surged, rising from 6,450 rural students in 2011 to 10,965 in 2021, an increase of 70 percent.
In the 2021-22 school year, 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.
“Rural families like private school choice,” Matus and Hankerson noted.
Rather than force the closure of rural schools, the report found that choice programs led to the creation of new schools in rural areas.
“Private schools are being created to meet demand,” Matus and Hankerson wrote. “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.”
A 2017 report from The Brookings Institution found 69 percent of rural families nationwide live within 10 miles of a private school. The Brookings report found that 61 percent of Oklahoma students live within 10 miles of a private school, compared to 62 percent who live within 10 miles of another public school through interdistrict choice.
The report’s findings rebut the “sky is falling” rhetoric offered by opponents of school choice during the 2022 elections in Oklahoma. Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent of Public Instruction-elect Ryan Walters both campaigned as supporters of allowing families to use a portion of the state funding allotted for their child’s education to pay for private-school tuition. Both men were attacked for taking that stance.
During a gubernatorial debate with Stitt, Democratic candidate Joy Hofmeister said school choice is “a rural school killer” and that any program allowing funds to follow students would result in the “dismantling of public schools.”
At a debate with Walters, Democratic superintendent candidate Jena Nelson made similar statements, declaring that school vouchers “are a way to defund public education and they are a rural school killer.”
An ad by Oklahoma’s Children Our Future, declared Stitt was “a danger to rural public schools.” Another ad by Oklahoma’s Children Our Future claimed that Walters’ education plan was to “shut our schools down, kill our small towns, and force great teachers to quit.” A website by Oklahoma’s Children Our Future claimed to inform voters, “How much money could your child’s school lose under the Stitt-Walters education plan?”
But both Stitt and Walters easily prevailed in their races, and both men received strong support in Oklahoma’s rural counties.
Matus and Hankerson noted similar anti-school-choice messages have been used in other states.
“There are so many positive testimonials about education choice in rural Florida, in fact, that it’s befuddling to hear choice opponents in Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, and other states continue to make the same, contradictory claims: 1) that school choice won’t do any good for rural areas, because there are so few options to give rural parents a choice, and 2) that it will decimate rural district schools,” Matus and Hankerson wrote.
The data from Florida indicate Oklahoma’s rural voters had good reason to reject anti-school-choice campaign messages.
“School choice doesn’t make the sky fall on rural district schools,” Matus and Hankerson wrote. “But it does help part the clouds for rural families who need options for their children.”