Vouchers Don’t Work in Rural Areas

Vouchers don’t provide an actual choice for students living in rural areas who have few, if any, access points to schools other than their local public schools. If students are able to use a voucher, they are generally required to endure long, costly commutes. And, vouchers are especially harmful to the public school systems serving large rural areas because the schools are forced to spread the same costs for facilities, transportation, administration, and instruction over a smaller revenue stream.

Rural Schools serve a large number of students

A report on rural schools looking at data from the 2013-14 school year found that more than 20 percent of all public school students in the United States are enrolled in rural school districts, which is over 9.7 million students. Of those rural students, more than two in five live in poverty, more than one in four is a child of color, and one in eight has changed residence in the previous 12 months.

Moreover, the demographic characteristics of the rural student population continue to shift, with rural schools becoming increasingly diverse and serving larger populations of students that schools have historically not served effectively (i.e., the students for whom performance is described in terms of achievement gaps). In 16 states, one-third or more of all public school students are enrolled in rural school districts. On the other hand, more than half of all rural students live in just 11 states. Growth in rural school enrollment continues to outpace non-rural enrollment growth in the United States, and rural schools continue to grow more complex with increasing rates of poverty, diversity, and students with special needs.

Rural Areas Lack actual School Choice

Of the most rural states, only 3 (Oklahoma, Mississippi and Arkansas) currently have voucher programs. This demonstrates that despite a highly-conservative political environment in many rural states, there is no local push to create school voucher programs in many places given the fiscal and logistical challenges.

Unlike the typical suburban middle class or urban family, rural families have few access points to schools other than their local public schools. The 2011-12 federal Schools and Staffing Survey indicated that in states with school choice programs, 74 percent of students in urban schools had the option of enrolling in another nearby school, compared to only 21 percent of rural students. That percentage is even smaller for students in remote rural areas. For rural states like Montana, adequately financing the public schools is already difficult. Even charter schools, which are financed through public revenues, have yet to flourish in many rural areas.

Barriers to Voucher Programs in Rural Areas

Transportation is challenging. Rural schools face significant challenges in transporting children between their homes and their schools. “Rural schoolchildren were more likely than their suburban counterparts to have bus rides of 30 minutes or longer. Their rides also tended to be more arduous, traversing poorer roads and more hilly or mountainous terrain than those experienced by suburban students.” Rural districts can spend twice what urban districts spend per pupil on transportation. And there are other costs that come with longer commutes: when students spend more time on a bus, that means less time to participate in extracurricular activities or help out at home, as well as increased safety issues for small children leaving for school and arriving home in the dark.

Another major hurdle in bringing vouchers to rural communities is that the public schools are more than just places for children to learn: they serve a critical social and economic function by serving as the primary employer of small communities, offering healthcare for children and adults alike and frequently offering food pantries, breakfast or lunch programs and night classes. A decision by a rural family to withdraw a child from the public school and enroll them elsewhere doesn’t mean that the family disconnects from the school—it simply means that the school has fewer resources to provide the non-educational benefits critical for community members.

And with lower average enrollments, rural schools encounter diseconomies of scale as they attempt to spread the cost of facilities, transportation, administration, and instruction over a smaller revenue stream. If enrollment for rural schools declines further, it will only increase the challenge of providing federally mandated programs for students in special education, English-language instruction, and ensuring students have access to school personnel and curriculum.

Private School Vouchers Are Untenable in Rural Areas

Even conservative education leaders like Checker Finn, who helmed the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, agree that private school choice is untenable in rural schools. “Choice, save for the virtual kind, is harder to make work in spread-out suburbs, small towns, and rural areas, where one seldom has workable access to multiple schools," Finn wrote. "I strongly suspect that most Trump voters with kids—to the extent that education is on their minds—are chiefly interested in having their current schools work better, ensure a decent and prosperous future for their students, including readiness for real jobs."