Can School Choice Work in Rural Areas?

Two Republican senators brought up the unique challenges students in sparsely populated areas face during Education Secretary-nominee Betsy DeVos’s hearing.

A yellow school bus drives down a dusty road with rolling plains in the background.
A school bus in rural Wyoming (Laura Rauch / AP)

Education Secretary-nominee Betsy DeVos offered little clarification of her policy goals at Tuesday’s Senate confirmation hearing, but one thing is certain: The Michigan billionaire is in favor of school choice. She has backed charter schools and voucher programs in the past, though she is adamant that this position does not equate to being anti-public school. At the hearing, both Republican Senator Mike Enzi, who represents Wyoming, and Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, brought up the unique challenges rural states face in education structure and financing. Both spoke of the distance issues students in frontier areas combat to physically get to non-public schools, and Murkowski referenced her constituents who are concerned about what happens when “there is no way to get to an alternative option for your child.” This structural problem—further entrenched by the reality that there are simply fewer students to populate new schools that might open—presents a tangled web of unequal supply and demand for charter schools. The “choice” aspect of school choice is not always realistic.

I spoke to Karen Eppley, an associate professor in the Pennsylvania State University College of Education and the editor of the Journal in Rural Research and Education, about what DeVos’s goals for education mean for sparsely populated states. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Hayley Glatter: What aspects of education in rural areas affect how a model favoring school choice would be implemented there?

Karen Eppley: School choice is really complicated in rural areas not only because of the distance and financial constraints that many rural families have, but also because rural schools tend to function as anchors in their communities. Rural citizens tend to be highly involved with their schools; the schools are often the social anchor of the community, and they provide services not available elsewhere, like sports, summer lunch programs, night classes, and food pantries. They also tend to be major employers. Because so many families are so heavily involved in their community schools and have these social ties, the decision to withdraw their children and take them elsewhere—whether to a charter or a private school—has effects beyond just the daily school attendance.

Glatter: Currently, how does school choice operate in these rural areas?

Eppley: Rural charter schools make up about 16 percent of all charter schools nationwide, and a report showed this number is growing. A good portion of those charter schools were formed in response to school closures and consolidations. So whereas more urban and suburban charters tend to be run by management companies such as KIPP or Edison Learning, rural charter schools are different because they are often—but not always—run by community members. A lot of times, if the district wants to close a school, a group of community members will come in and say, “Okay, close the school, but we’re going to make this charter school in place of the former district school.”

Glatter: You mentioned the important community-building functions of rural schools, so how would moving toward a model favoring school choice as Betsy DeVos supports affect public schools in rural areas?

Eppley: There can be a lot of social implications. For example, if you’re a small school and you can barely field a football team, or you can barely field a basketball team, or you don’t have enough students to do, say, mock trial, when you pull those students out, then students who have remained in the host school are at a disadvantage as well. But more often, the reasoning that you’re going to hear has to do with the finances of it. In the U.S., of the states that have charter-school law—and not all of them do—[some] require the sending school to pay for transportation to the charter school. Not to the private school, but to the charter school. So that is an enormous financial drain on the sending school in addition to the per capita [dollars] that these students [send] the charter schools. So it can be financially devastating to schools that are already operating on the proverbial shoestring.

Glatter: Do you see any rural-specific benefits a charter-school model might be able to offer?

Eppley: The main benefit that I can see, and this is particularly true in Pennsylvania, is that often these rural charter schools are formed in response to school closures and consolidations. So, for example, I’m thinking of a particular school in Pennsylvania where the host district said it would close one of the elementary schools and the high school and consolidate with a district 45 minutes away. So what happened was parents opened a K-12 charter in response to that closure to keep that school in that community.