When someone mentions the phrase “failing school,” what image comes to mind? For most, it will be an urban school with a significant population of disadvantaged, minority kids. While this image is no doubt reasonable—many of the worst school districts in the country are urban—the problems of poor schools in other areas are too often forgotten. Particularly in America’s rural areas and small towns, performance doesn’t look all that different from central cities.
For instance, the lowest-performing school district in the state of Wisconsin is not Milwaukee. It’s tiny Cambria-Friesland, population 767. Nevertheless, the story of education reform in the state of Wisconsin, like most areas around the country, has overwhelmingly focused on the challenges of urban education.
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the nation’s first private school voucher program, was started 25 years ago with the goal of providing low-income, mostly minority students with options other than a public school system that was failing them. And with good reason. Thousands of poor, mostly black students were desperate for options.
But an unintended byproduct of this urban focus has been an education reform movement that has largely ignored the plight of rural communities. While charter schools and voucher programs marched ahead in city after city, rural areas were left behind. These communities are smaller, less concentrated, and often out of view. In other words, they are easier to ignore.
Many Rural Kids Are Being Shortchanged
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) conducted a recent study of education in rural Wisconsin. We found that, once factors like economic status are taken into account, rural schools are some of the worst performers in the Badger State. Relative to their peers at urban and suburban schools, students in rural school districts have the lowest ACT scores, are more likely to need remedial classes if they attend college, and perform equally poorly on statewide tests as urban schools.
This is a crisis. It deserves a response as serious and urgent as the response to the crisis in urban education. But it hasn’t. Despite challenges like declining enrollment, high poverty, and poor student outcomes, the preferred response from lawmakers is tired and familiar: increased spending on K-12 public schools. This, despite studies and experience that have shown no correlation between increases in per-pupil spending and student outcomes.
So why is it that with a crisis in urban education, reformers have recognized that the key to improving student outcomes is expanding education options, often in the form of charter schools and private school choice, but for rural and small-town communities they give a collective shoulder shrug?
Study after study has shown a boost in education outcomes for students who are given the option of attending a school that fits their needs. Whether it is increased test scores, increased graduation rates, or lower incarceration rates, school choice has a proven track record that gets results. In addition, it’s popular. In Milwaukee, more than 27,000 students have elected to attend a private school through the voucher program.
Nevertheless, expanding options to our rural communities has met excessive regulation, arbitrary enrollment and income caps, and a disappointing amount of skepticism. In Texas, rural legislators have consistently torpedoed school choice legislation, yet another time just last week, failing to see the benefits of expanding options to their communities. In Wisconsin, lawmakers placed severe limitations on the nascent statewide voucher program that hinder growth.
Three Ways to Boost Rural School Choice
Rural school choice deserves a chance to succeed. Here’s how.
Reduce Red Tape
Of the 800 private schools in Wisconsin, 1 out of 5 have addresses in rural counties. But of that group, just 1 out of 7 private rural schools are participating in Wisconsin’s parental choice program. That’s because the statewide voucher program is significantly more restrictive than those available in urban areas like Milwaukee and Racine.
Currently, only 1 percent of students in a particular school district are allowed to enroll, and income caps cut out families who would qualify in the state’s urban programs. This has created waitlists of more than 500 in the last year due to enrollment caps. School leaders see the excessive regulation and hamstrung growth as a reason to pass up participation or expansion.
Wherever it has been tried, school choice is popular. Even with a lower population density, rural parents have been willing to commute longer distances to provide their children with a better educational opportunity. For example, Notre Dame La Baie is a private school in the choice program located in Green Bay. While Green Bay is a larger city (at least by Wisconsin standards!), many small-town and rural areas are within driving distance.
More than 40 percent of the students enrolled in Notre Dame La Baie travel more than eight miles to school each day. When an opportunity for a better education exists, many rural parents are willing to make the effort to provide it to their child.
Rural School Choice Can Look Different
Expanding school choice to rural and small-town communities won’t necessarily look the same as it does in urban centers. But it doesn’t make the task any less urgent. While it would be naïve to expect a sudden explosion of new schools in rural America, long-established parochial schools are mainstays in many communities. Supply does exist.
In addition, school choice can come in the form of course choice, whereby a local private school and a local public school can provide students in a given community new options in the form of different courses. This will benefit students with different interests, ambitions, and needs. A robust voucher program can open these doors.
It’s increasingly urgent to change the perception of school choice away from something that is only reserved for the disadvantaged kids in downtown Milwaukee or Washington DC to something that will provide new opportunities for students wherever they might live.
Wisconsin legislators can make a difference by lifting the impediments to growth by eliminating stifling enrollment and income caps. Around the country, policymakers and the education reform movement ought to apply their principles consistently, recognizing that education choice can work for all families. School choice has been found to increase test scores and graduation rates, and even to reduce the risk that children will become involved in the criminal justice system.
Fighting for more and better education options should be a goal for all of our communities.