Among the predictable questions that arise during just about every discussion of school choice is one along these lines: "We live in a rural community and there's no other school within forty miles. How could school choice possibly benefit our children? We have enough troubles making ends meet and keeping our school open."
Many towns with faltering Title I schools used a similar excuse this past autumn for NOT providing public-school choice to their students, despite the NCLB requirement that they do so. "We only have one junior high school," went the argument, "so it's not possible to offer intra-district school choice to those students."
How compelling is this claim? What can school choice mean in rural and thinly populated parts of the country, in communities with just one or two schools, and in places where a humongous "consolidated" school seems to suck all the oxygen from the education air?
I can think of at least five forms of school choice that can "work" under such circumstances. (Readers are invited to suggest more.) The contention that nothing is possible thus reveals either a failure of imagination or a mischievous attempt to drive a nail into the coffin in which some seek to entomb school choice.
First and most obvious, allow kids to choose public schools in nearby districts. At least a dozen states already give families the right to select any public school in the state. Even where that's not the case, NCLB says - and the recent Education Department regulations emphasize - that small districts with persistently failing Title I schools are supposed to make every practicable effort to arrange for students to opt into schools run by other districts. In the NCLB case, the "sending" district is also obliged to provide transportation and may use Title I dollars for this purpose.
Second, deploy some form of voucher to enable children to enroll in private schools - in their own community or nearby. This already happens in parts of northern New England, where small towns, instead of operating their own high schools, "tuition" their youngsters into the public or private schools of their choice. (Here's a link to an article about Maine's program, which is limited to secular schools: http://www.cato.org/pubs/briefs/bp-066es.html.) Though rural America is not awash in private schools, it has some-including boarding schools that also take "day students"-and might have more if education funding were portable and could be used in this way.
Third, encourage charter schools. Although there aren't huge numbers of rural charters, I've seen enough of them operating successfully in the Colorado mountains, the Arizona desert, the Minnesota woods (e.g. the celebrated Minnesota New Country School, www.mncs.k12.mn.us/about/about.htm) and the California canyons to know that this is possible. The "Annenberg Rural Challenge" gave this development a boost and it continues in such organizations as the Colorado Rural Charters Network (http://www.ruralcharters.org/). Few places are more rural than Idaho, which now boasts some fifteen charter schools open or on the way. (See http://csi.boisestate.edu/icsn/idaho_charters.htm.) Alaska is also making good use of this opportunity to bring educational innovations and improvements into remote places. (See http://www.uscharterschools.org/cs/uscsp/query/q/129?state=Alaska&x-title=Profiles+of+Alaska+Charter+Schools and http://www.nwrel.org/nwedu/spring01/alaska.html.)
Fourth, run multiple schools under the same roof, like a cinema multiplex. "Schools within schools" are not a new idea. That's how public-school choice in East Harlem got started, with kids changing schools by climbing the stairs within the same building. But this could also work in rural America - maybe not in wee village primary schools but surely in those big "consolidated" schools. Of the ten new "specialized" public schools that opened in the Bronx this year, seven are operating within the walls of larger public schools. Medina, Ohio has four high schools functioning in a single building. Why couldn't something similar happen in the middle of Kansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina or Montana? A child might attend a "math-science" school in one wing of the building or switch to an "arts and humanities" school in another. One mini-school might emphasize Core Knowledge while a second does Expeditionary Learning.
Fifth, make use of distance learning and "virtual" education. These were made to order for rural America because they don't require the child to move at all. Staying right at home - or at the neighbors', the day-care center or a parent's workplace - a youngster can change schools by changing the URL on his computer screen. Sure, especially for small children, there also needs to be a competent adult nearby, but if the "virtual" program is solid, the adult-in-the-room-with-the-kid need not be a full-fledged teacher. And older pupils can do a great deal of virtual learning on their own.
This isn't a new idea, either. "Correspondence" courses were invented ages ago for youngsters lacking ready access to an acceptable brick-and-mortar school. In the Australian outback and remote corners of the Falkland Islands, classes delivered by radio have been available for decades. Today, though, the Internet makes so much more possible. The "APEX" program beams Advanced Placement courses into high schools that lack the staff or enrollments to provide their own and now offers customized virtual school programs as well. (See http://www.apexlearning.com.) Florida has a statewide virtual high school (http://www.flvs.net/). Virtual charter schools are proliferating from Pennsylvania and Ohio to California, Colorado and Idaho, as several firms develop Internet-delivered education programs and as more families - some but by no means all of them former "home schoolers" - discover this way to bring a strong curriculum into their living rooms, even if they live on the remotest mountain top or at the end of a dirt road. (Full disclosure: I'm on the board of one such firm, a terrific outfit known as K12 and led by former Education Secretary William Bennett. See http://www.k12.com/.)
In sum, education choice makes at least as much sense - and is now as feasible - for rural America as for inner cities and suburbs. The "no other school within forty miles" argument should be seen for what it is: a herring as red as Rudolph's nose.
"E-classes help small schools keep pace with urban peers," by Jeff Ballinger, Contra Costa Times, October 19, 2002
"Schools Adapt Old Lesson: Share and Share Alike," by Marek Fuchs, The New York Times, September 18, 2002