Study: Rural students need better schools not more choices

Study: Rural students need better schools not more choices

(Va.) A lack of school choice can hinder opportunities for children in rural schools, but lawmakers should avoid urban solutions when addressing inequities in rural districts, according to a new report.

A study released this month by the American Association of School Administrators on equity for rural schools found that, due to the sheer distance between schools, rural students don’t truly have a choice when it comes to enrolling in a school that will meet their needs.

“The problem for rural students and families who are dissatisfied with the offerings in their public school and want more choices is that they often have no other available public or private school in their area,” authors of the report wrote. “Distances between schools and communities make finding an alternative to the public-school system a logistical impossibility for many students and families as well.”

However, potential fixes for families in urban districts–including private school voucher programs or interdistrict transfers–implausible education reform strategy in rural communities, authors found. Aside from the difficulties in arranging transportation for students to schools that may be an hour or more away from their home school, voucher programs would only further deplete the already limited resources in rural districts.

As the report notes, rural and small-town public schools often serve critical social and economic functions outside of educating children. Many are the primary employer of small communities, offer health care or medical referrals for children and adults, and t frequently offer food pantries, or breakfast and lunch programs.

“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 system,” authors wrote. “It simply means that the school has fewer resources to provide the non-instructional benefits required in its community.”

Currently, 53 percent of schools in the United States are rural, according to the report, yet only 17 percent of state funds, on average, go to rural districts, despite higher costs in rural and smaller schools. And at the same time, poverty rates are climbing, authors noted. In 23 states a majority of rural students are in low-income households, compared to 16 states in 2013.

In order to improve rural schools, authors recommend federal policymakers stop promoting private school vouchers as a way to expand educational opportunities in rural areas, and to instead boost educational opportunities in local public schools by increasing efforts to modernize rural classrooms and integrate technology into teaching and learning.

The report also calls on Congress to extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, increase funding for career and technical education programs, expand the Community Eligibility Provision so more students in high-poverty schools can receive free meals, improve schools’ access to Medicaid funding for health and mental health services provided to students, and adjust the Title I funding formula so that it’s “accurately and more meaningfully” allocated to rural school districts.