A common observation made by critics of school choice is that it has little to offer families in rural communities where the population isn’t large enough to support multiple schools, and where transportation is already burdensome. I’ve made the point myself, and I’m a school choice proponent. These days I live in a small town in upstate New York, whose school district pulls in students from eleven townships scattered across well over 100 square miles. Meaningful choice seems unlikely to be a feature of the educational landscape anytime soon, if ever, in my neck of the woods.
A new Heritage Foundation paper from Jason Bedrick and Matthew Ladner challenges that notion. The 14 percent of Americans who live in rural areas already have more options than commonly assumed, they argue. For starters, seven in ten rural families live within ten miles of a private elementary school. Counterintuitively, they note the share of rural students in private schools is the same as their urban peers, about ten percent.
In Arizona, where both authors live, more than eight in ten students live in the same zip code as at least one charter school. This point is less compelling when you consider that more than two-thirds of Arizona’s population lives in Phoenix. But the Grand Canyon State has one of the nation’s most robust and popular charter sectors, and a political environment that has long been far more congenial for choice than most other states. Last year, Arizona expanded eligibility for its K–12 education savings account (ESA) program to every one of its 1.1 million school-aged students, making it “the gold standard for education choice,” in Bedrick and Ladner’s view. ESAs poll well among Arizona parents, presumably creating conditions congenial to a further flowering of private choice options statewide. If the point is that other states might want to look to Arizona as a model, that point is well-taken.
Rural areas in Arizona and elsewhere are seeing the rise of microschools, which the authors describe as “a modern reimagining of the one-room schoolhouse.” The pair also argue that “high-quality virtual schools are available to anyone with a decent Internet connection.” One surprising piece of data (to me, at least) is that broadband access is not markedly different in rural America: 72 percent of country-dwellers have a broadband Internet connection at home, compared 77 and 79 percent of urban and suburban homes, respectively. That said, the paper is somewhat blithe about the checkered performance of online learning, particularly during the pandemic. “Virtual leaning might not be the right fit for every child,” they note. “But for some it opens a world of possibilities they otherwise do not have locally—all without having to leave the rural community that they know and love,” they write. Fair enough.
Rural families are twice as likely to be homeschoolers as their urban and suburban counterparts; about 5 percent of rural students are homeschooled. Bedrick and Ladner don’t say so explicitly, but the paper implies that political and cultural discomfort with traditional public schools could be a significant factor driving the appetite for choice among rural Americans. “There is a growing disconnect between parents and public schools over the values taught in school,” they write. Citing a poll conducted for the American Federation for Teachers (!), the nation’s second largest teachers’ union, 44 percent of respondents agreed that public schools “often go too far in promoting a political agenda in the classroom.” Half of those surveyed expressed concern that education “has become too politicized.” Similarly, a 2022 Pew survey showed that only half of public school parents said that the teachers and administrators at their child’s school share their values, compared to eight of ten private school parents.
The implication is clear enough: Rural families are disproportionately politically and culturally conservative, thus more likely to see the appeal of choice as an alternative to traditional public schools with which they’re increasingly at odds.
And, indeed, that’s exactly the case. Bedrick and Ladner point out that in last year’s Texas Republican primary, a ballot proposition asked voters whether Texas families “should have the right to select schools, whether public or private, for their children, and the funding should follow the student.” GOP voters said yes by a staggering 88 percent to 12 percent. “Some of the highest levels of support came from the most rural counties in Texas,” they note. “Likewise, a survey conducted in January 2022 found that 70 percent of rural Oklahomans supported school choice, while only 25 percent opposed it.”
Of course, supporting choice in theory and in practice are not the same thing. The paper unwittingly raises another question for school choice advocates to answer: If choice is more widely available than assumed, then why aren’t more rural residents availing themselves of it? My sense is that school choice advocates habitually underestimate what a heavy lift it is for families to do something other than putting your kids on the bus to school five days a week. It can be profoundly disruptive to family routines. Cultural habits are hard to break. In my community, the district school has served multiple generations; it’s not uncommon for children to have the same kindergarten teacher as their parents. Families deserve the opportunity to direct their children’s education in a way that comports with their interest and values. Choice has to offer something compelling (or the local school has to be truly awful) to break longstanding behaviors that have both habit and convenience on their side.
“Critics of school choice often assume a static marketplace in education, but the reality is more dynamic,” the report concludes. “However, choice policies have the potential to increase private school options in rural areas.” On this there’s no disagreement. In states like Arizona, West Virginia, and Florida, the path is clearing for a flowering of choice and a dynamic marketplace in education options to emerge. After decades of choice theorizing, it will be worth watching closely to see if parents—and not just rural parents—can be motivated to avail themselves of it.