Ray Carter | January 25, 2023

Study: School choice doesn’t harm rural schools

Ray Carter

A new study shows that as school-choice programs increase education options in rural areas, they are not associated with the closure of existing public schools in rural counties.

“Opponents of education choice often make two arguments about its effect on rural areas: (1) Education choice will not help in rural areas because there are few or no alternatives to the district school system, and (2) education choice will destroy the district school system because so many students will leave for alternative options,” wrote researchers Jason Bedrick and Matthew Ladner. “These two claims are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be true, but they can both be—and indeed are—false.” (Emphasis in original.)

In “Rustic Renaissance: Education Choice in Rural America,” a new report from The Heritage Foundation, Bedrick and Ladner review the data from states that have had significant school choice programs for years, and find that there is no notable negative impact on existing public schools in those areas.

In fact, there is a significant desire for school choice in rural areas.

Citing data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the report noted that about 10 percent of rural students nationwide attend a private school, which is comparable to the rate in urban areas. Furthermore, nearly 5 percent of rural students are homeschoolers, which is about twice the proportion of students in cities, suburbs, and towns, suggesting many rural families have opted to homeschool when they cannot easily afford private schools.

Polling and election results have also shown strong rural appetite for greater school choice, including private-school choice.

Bedrick and Ladner noted that in the March 2022 Texas Republican primary, Proposition 9 asked voters whether “Texas parents and guardians should have the right to select schools, whether public or private, for their children, and the funding should follow the student.” Republican primary voters supported the measure overwhelmingly and it passed with 88 percent of voters in support.

“Some of the highest levels of support came from the most rural counties in Texas, including Culberson (97 percent), Edwards (89 percent), Kent ­(87 percent), McMullen (90 percent), Kenedy (100 percent), Roberts (87 percent), and Terrell (90 percent),” the Heritage report stated.

The report also noted that a survey conducted in January 2022 found 70 percent of rural Oklahomans supported school choice.

The appetite among rural parents for school choice has led some critics to suggest any program that allows parents to use their tax dollars to pay for private-school tuition will lead to a mass exodus from public schools in rural areas and force their closure.

But in practice, the Heritage report found that school choice results in the creation of new schools in rural areas, not a decline in the overall number of school options.

Since the mid-1990s, Arizona has offered rural charter schools and tax-credit scholarships that allow students to attend private schools. Last year, the Legislature voted to allow all families in Arizona to participate in an Education Savings Account program that lets families use tax dollars to attend private schools.

Bedrick and Ladner noted that private-school enrollment has increased steadily in rural Arizona. Of the seven Arizona counties considered rural by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, five have private schools. The number of tax-credit scholarships awarded in those rural counties has increased by 163 percent since the 2010–2011 academic year and student enrollment in private schools doubled over the past eight years in the four rural counties for which data were available for both the 2021–2022 and 2013–2014 academic years.

“Are Arizona’s rural school districts withering and dying because of school choice, as the critics predicted?” Bedrick and Ladner asked. “Hardly. The National Center for Education Statistics listed 224 regular school districts in Arizona in 1993, the year before choice began. In 2019, the same source listed 226 Arizona regular school districts. Since the advent of choice in Arizona, 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 overall picture is of relative stability. The news of rural school districts dying because of choice seems to have been greatly exaggerated.”

Data tell a similar story in Florida where school-choice policies have increased the number of schools available to rural families.

Bedrick and Ladner noted that since Florida enacted its tax-credit scholarship policy 20 years ago “the number of private schools in Florida’s 30 rural counties has grown from 69 to 120” and “private school enrollment in those counties has more than doubled, from 5,354 rural private school students in the 2001–2002 academic year to 10,965 students in 2021–2022, according to state data.” According to Step Up for Students, Florida’s largest scholarship organization, about 70 percent of private school students in Florida’s 30 rural counties use school-choice scholarships.

Bedrick and Ladner noted the basic reason families in suburban and urban areas embrace school choice applies equally to rural families.

“No one school can best meet the needs of all the children who just happen to live nearby,” Bedrick and Ladner wrote. “Families living in rural areas deserve more education options.”

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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