The time has come for rural school choice

Jul 12, 2017

Faced with the grim reality that many urban public school districts have a dismal record of student achievement and success, parents in Missouri’s two major cities have taken advantage of charter schools, private schools and even transferring to higher-performing suburban school districts for many years.

In these urban areas, parents, in many cases regardless of their economic status,  have been given the power to choose the educational path that is best for their children. That choice has allowed students from every socio-economic background to increase their chances for educational and economic success.

Parents in rural Missouri, where the educational landscape is completely different, do not have any of these educational options.

According to a recent study by the Rural School and Community Trust, one in five students in Missouri attend a rural school (when towns are included in the count, 44.9 percent of Missouri students attend a rural or town school) and 54 percent of those students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Many rural parents may be happy with the current system, content to send their children to the same school they graduated from or just not aware of the opportunities they could have access to if state legislators got serious about providing school choice.

The reality is that rural schools, for the most part, perform better than schools in St. Louis and Kansas City. Rural students tend to have higher ELA and math proficiency scores on state tests and rural high schools have a high graduation rate at 92 percent.

But when you drill down into the nitty-gritty of school data, there are some troubling trends in rural schools.

Only 17 percent of rural high school students take AP courses and only 45 percent took the ACT or SAT. Missouri also has one of the lowest rates in the nation of pay for rural teachers, with only one other state paying less.

On average less than 50 percent of rural students score proficient or higher on state MAP tests and rural high school students score lower on the ACT than their urban counterparts.

Low ACT performance and a lack of access to higher level courses put rural Missouri students at a serious disadvantage when it comes to college and career readiness.

And that matters. A lot.

A large body of research over the past two decades has proven that higher levels of education consistently coincide with higher lifetime earnings.

A recent study of Missouri by the Show-Me Institute, demonstrated that “…counties in which a large percentage of the adult population had not completed high school in 1990 are today more likely to be characterized by lower average household incomes, poor records of health choices, and less social cohesion. On the other hand, the typical county wherein the adult population in 1990 had achieved a high school diploma plus some additional training or a bachelor’s degree or more is today described by generally higher relative household incomes, better overall health, and better social outcomes.”

It is obvious that improving education for rural Missouri students will have a real impact on those student’s futures, their health, and the even the economic growth of their rural communities.

Achieving real improvements in rural education is no easy task. Rural districts are typically smaller than their urban counterparts (many with fewer than 350 students), have less funding and have a harder time attracting high-quality teachers.

Rural districts are typically smaller than their urban counterparts (many with fewer than 350 students), have less funding and have a harder time attracting high-quality teachers.

Some solutions to these problems can, however, be found through a variety of school choice initiatives.

Charter schools have historically proven more successful in urban settings, but innovative rural charter approaches in Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, and Kansas, have proven that when public charter schools are properly designed and supported by rural communities they can have a real impact.

Rural communities could also see real educational advantages through virtual education and course access initiatives, which could provide expanded course offerings and revenue sources, and competency-based individualized learning paths to students of every level.

The rural Grandview R-2 district in Jefferson County has seen this approach transform their high school over the last decade and now provides virtual summer courses for the entire state.

Educational Savings Accounts also would provide real, tangible benefits for rural parents, especially those with children with disabilities who could use the funding to help provide more individualized support for their children. Each of these initiatives provides parents the power to have more control over their child’s future. Shouldn’t those options and choices be provided

Shouldn’t those options and choices be provided for the rural parent as well?