Myth: School choice has little to offer rural families

Teachers’ unions and other school choice opponents use every excuse they can to limit empowering families with greater education choice, including that such programs don’t benefit rural areas because options outside of the public school system aren’t there, or that they actually harm rural school districts. I have even had school choice supporters make these points to me.

But are these claims true? Not according to a new report by Jason Bedrick and Matthew Ladner at The Heritage Foundation.

Expanding education choice does not harm rural school districts

“Indeed, the best evidence suggests education choice policies spur rural schools to improve,” note the authors.

While evidence that rural school districts wither and die because of school choice is not there, there is evidence that rural districts don’t suffer academically when surrounded by school choice programs. In fact, according to pre-pandemic National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, “rural Arizona students [a state teeming with school choice] demonstrated progress on five of the six academic exams, often by wide margins. On the sixth exam, Arizona rural students matched the national trend.”

Test scores are not the only indicator that choice policies contribute “to the increase in academic performance,” the authors note, yet nevertheless they “provide strong evidence against the hypothesis that education choice causes harm.”

Rural areas do have alternatives to the public school system

Despite their smaller populations, rural communities have more school options than oft assumed, the authors argue. “About seven in 10 rural families live within 10 miles of a private elementary school. … Rural areas are also seeing the rise of micro-schools, a modern reimagining of the one-room schoolhouse.”

Additionally, high-quality virtual schools are becoming more accessible to rural America as Internet connections in those areas continues to increase in availability — 72 percent of rural Americans have a broadband Internet connection at home compared to 77 percent and 79 percent of urban and suburban residents, respectively.

Homeschooling is also more popular among rural families compared to their urban and suburban peers, with twice the number (nearly 5 percent) of rural students learning in this setting.

Education choice policies increase education options in rural areas

A lack of options means a greater need for choice policies to increase what’s available in rural areas. Florida and Arizona help lead the way on how such policies work.

For example, 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. Meanwhile, 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.

Arizona is another state with robust education choice options that allow families to select private schools, including in rural areas. Nearly 7 percent of Arizona students use tax-credit scholarships or ESAs to access private learning options. Contrary to the assertion of school-choice opponents in Arizona that choice policies “provid[e] no benefit to rural communities,” thousands of rural students attend private schools using tax-credit scholarships.

The growth in rural private school enrollment in Arizona over the past decade has not been driven by population growth.

There is also room for increased charter school presence in rural areas, as not every state’s charter policy or administration make this learning environment accessible. Again, Arizona is a prime example of where charter schools are accessible in rural areas. “Arizona has more charter schools operating in rural areas (64) than the number of charter schools statewide in 16 states with charter school laws (Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, and Wyoming),” according to the report.

Policymakers should not fall prey to the “scaremongering” tactics used against expanding education choice, as “there is no evidence that the expansion of education options in rural areas has any negative effects,” the authors conclude.

Rural families whose children are not well served by their assigned school often face the difficult choice between subpar education and leaving the community they love. Rural families who have access to a wide variety of high-quality education options are more likely to stay and avail themselves of those options.