As we in the education reform community observe National School Choice Week, one question that continues to nag me is why do reform issues, including school choice, seem to languish in rural areas?
This is not the first time I’ve asked myself that question. I grew up in a rural area, attended a small school and lived in a small community. Frequently, I find myself wondering if the policy changes that we work towards at 50CAN would have the same chance of success and student impact in a rural area, like where I grew up.
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always yes.
Despite the work of talented and committed educators in rural areas, the implementation of a policy like school choice is particularly challenging in small communities.
For example, there was no private high school in my county or the next one over, so even if my state had adopted a voucher program, there would have been nowhere to spend the money. Charters have been slow to grow in rural areas where you have to drive long distances just to gather a handful of students. And existing schools struggle to attract and keep high-quality teachers and administrators in remote areas.
Although these are major challenges, I’m confident that more and more solutions are emerging to target rural communities for greater school choice and opportunity.
Virtual schools, including charters, have the potential to be a part of the solution as long as they are also held up to rigorous standards. If a child is too far away to attend a great, high-achieving school, then the school should be able to come to them.
Teach For America has launched a Rural Schools Leadership Academy to train great leaders and provide an additional talent pipeline for schools in rural areas. In 2013, Louisiana is launching their “Course Choice” program, which will allow students to either take classes through external public providers or attend any school to take courses not offered by their home school or district. Currently, five public school districts, every public college and university in Louisiana and Louisiana-based course providers and virtual schools are slated to be providers.
This kind of choice may look a little different, but it has great potential to reach children who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend a stronger school or choose from a variety of math, science and English classes that are more readily available in urban areas.
As National School Choice week comes to a close, I am re-energized to dive back into these conversations and think about how we can bring great schools to every student, regardless of where they live.