How does school choice work in rural schools?

How does school choice work in rural schools?

By Anna E. Baldwin

As a rural teacher in a large frontier state, I know firsthand the limitations of small schools: reduced class offerings and extracurricular opportunities, huge travel distances for field trips and athletic events, limited funding for needed resources, and extreme difficulty recruiting teachers.

Many Americans outside rural areas do not understand the dynamic of these regions, but one would expect the federal education agency to get it. Nevertheless, while serving as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education, I learned that the policymakers there also need to be educated on the challenges of rural schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has made it clear that she has a single agenda item: to improve options for all students via school choice programs. But many rural educators are not convinced. They ask, how does choice work, exactly, in rural states? If my friend in Florida doesn’t like the traditional school in her neighborhood, she can send her kids to a local charter school. In states like Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas, however, families can’t simply choose to attend a different school. Districts are separated by enormous distances. And impending funding cuts that disproportionately affect rural and poor students are not helping to solve the problem.

I was determined to share this reality with Secretary DeVos, and in the Fellows’ first meeting with her, I did. Her response was to ask me whether rural schools have internet access. She implied that facilitating online options for students in rural schools will give them the “choice” they need.

I don’t think so. I’ve been an online teacher or the past seven years, and I find my relationships with online students are always weaker than those with kids in front of me. Online students often struggle because they lack internet at home, or because they require but do not have in-person assistance at school.  Many need tech support. Others have difficulty mustering motivation to stick with their education as a solo academic venture without the encouragement and accountability that come with other students and teachers. We’d do education a lot of good if we quit pretending that online instruction is equal to or better than face-to-face instruction. It rarely is.

After spending some time with the Secretary’s team, I am not sure she really understands rural schools or states. One of her communications team members assured me that she understands us because she’s from Holland, Michigan, which had a population of 33,051 in 2010. Holland is home to numerous schools and four institutions of higher learning. By contrast, my town boasts 602 residents and has one tiny K-12 public school district. It’s not uncommon for a school in Montana to be located 40-plus miles from the nearest district, and some are much farther. Some schools are so small that there is a single graduate each year. DeVos’s school might have been rural. Ours is remote.

When students living anywhere need better choices, simply plunking them in front of a laptop and pressing the power button is educational malpractice. Cutting funding for essential and effective programs in service of spending $1 billion to offer impractical “options” for students who likely will not benefit from them is governmental malpractice.  If Secretary DeVos and her team are serious about promoting choice across America, they need to develop actual policy that will serve all American students.


Anna E. Baldwin is the 2014 Montana State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She teaches English at Arlee High School in Arlee, Montana. During the last school year, she served as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Photo credit: Anna E. Baldwin.

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