Saturday, February 18, 2017

School choice without choices

After much opposition, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as education secretary on Tuesday, February 7, 2017. Chris Loss, an education-policy professor at Vanderbilt, points to the nation-wide reaction to DeVos as "evidence of just how mainstream education has become--unlike more arcane policy issues like housing and energy, issues that seem kind of abstract to the average voter. Education is pretty immediate, it's pretty visceral."

As education policy becomes more mainstream, so too does attention to parts of public education that have been often overlooked--including rural schools. (For previous blog posts on this issue, see this, this, and this.) While DeVos's appointment concerns a number of Americans throughout all settings in the country, advocates are especially worried about what her appointment will mean for rural schools. DeVos is notoriously a proponent of "school choice," which, as this blog hopes to further develop, may not amount to much of a choice for rural students.

Rural schools serve over 40% of U.S. students, but only receive 22% of federal funding. Further, rural schools have a critical shortage of teachers and often employ teachers who are not licensed in the subjects they teach. It is difficult to recruit and retain teachers because the pay is low, housing is sparse, and working conditions are difficult. Rural students are "likelier than their peers to live in poverty" and only 27% go on to college. Yet when students do go on to college, rural schools have been called "engines of exodus." The "brain drain" phenomenon leads not only to educated students leaving rural areas (see other posts here), but also exhausts rural resources. "If high school graduates or college graduates leave the local community to work and pay taxes elsewhere, then the community does not derive a benefit from its investment."

During DeVos's confirmation hearing, two Republican Senators questioned how changes would affect rural states where there are "distance issues students in frontier areas combat to physically get to non-public schools," concerns about when there is no way to get to an alternate option, and the issues that there are "simply fewer students to populate new schools" resulting in an "unequal demand for charter schools." DeVos responded vaguely, saying that individual states would design polices for the rural communities, but she envisions more distance learning and online courses. However, the National Education Policy Center has referenced the outcomes of online learning as negative "across the board" (See the full policy report here.) Further, rural areas often struggle with access to the internet, making this proposal impossible to introduce.

In rural settings, there are few charter or private school alternatives. Karen Eppley, editor of the Journal in Rural Research and Educationexplains that a large portion of rural charter schools were formed by community members in responds to school closures and consolidations. This is a very different set-up than the urban and suburban charters that are run by large-scale management companies, such as KIPP. Accordingly, it seems that rural charter schools are generally created out of necessity, not because of competition or to offer an alternative "choice" to the public schools in the area. The private schools in rural areas are often deeply religious, which, according to the Rural School and Community Trust, means they aren't an option for everyone.

Eric Steeves, a superintendent of a rural school in Maine, insists, "If you shut down schools, you destroy a town." As is common in rural schools, Steeves wears may hats. Other than superintendent, he is also the school's guidance counselor, works on the curriculum, and teachers remedial social studies. He is married to the school principal, who is also the library media specialist and the food services director. In small towns or rural areas, the public school can be the "social anchor" of the community. In addition to being a major employer, the school can provide services unavailable anywhere else, such as sports, summer lunch programs, and food pantries.

The school choice and voucher programs would "siphon away critical funding" from rural schools as parents opt out of public school take their taxpayer dollars with them. Steeves believes that DeVos's policies would be "disastrous" and "catastrophic" for schools like his. The impact is well illustrated by the nearest town's school superintendent: "Every time I lose a student somewhere it's five or six thousand dollars," and when "you lose seven students, that's a teaching position." Not only would his school lose tuition money, but Steeves fears they would have to bus students over an hour away to other schools in rough weather conditions. These changes could lead to many school closures in rural states with few options left over for the students living in rural communities.


Erin Gunter said...

It was very telling that the only two Republican Senators to vote against Betsy Devos' confirmation were both from rural states that had the most to lose if she was confirmed. ( As you described in your post states like Maine and Alaska, with around one-third of their population classified as rural, had every reason to vote against Devos. ( However, it was astonishing to me that all but one Senator from other states with large rural populations like Texas, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania voted to confirm Devos. (; Their votes seem to signal that, for at least some Senators, towing the party line is more important than doing what is best for their constituents. This is even more surprising given the unprecedented controversy surrounding Devos’ confirmation, that you reference in your post. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues under the Trump Administration.

dnlauber said...

I am Facebook friends with a number of my public high school teachers. It has been particularly interesting to me to see the social media response from public school teachers, on both sides of the aisle, and their common distaste for DeVos. This general opposition to DeVos was obvious through the unprecedented confirmation outcome. Here is an interesting piece from HuffPost detailing 9 teachers' opposition to Devos (

As Erin pointed out, I also think it speaks volumes that the only two Republican Senators to vote against DeVos were from rural states. You highlighted in your post DeVos' out-of-touch suggestion for online education to meet the needs of rural communities. Given that Trump won a significant number of rural votes, it is interesting that he nominated DeVos when her priorities offer so little to people living in rural communities ( It will be interesting to see in what other ways the Trump Administration fails rural voters over the next (hopefully) few years.

RGL said...

The confirmation of DeVos is so sad for so many reasons, and this is definitely one of the big ones. I appreciate how well you lay out the consequences for rural areas. I feel that even though cities may have more choices and resources (read: money) available, the cities will also see devastating consequences to new education policies coming from this administration. Albeit, students will likely still be in a real classroom.

A couple other observations:
Schools may be the center of these communities for all the reasons you list, but I can't help but to think that if schools shut down, the mass exodus from rural communities will only be exacerbated. If families can't send their kids to school, will they stay?

The most surprising thing you mention, at least to me, is that 40% of our country's schools are in rural communities. That's a huge percentage, and it makes it even harder for me to wrap my head around how this person got confirmed. Politics.

Anne Badasci said...

I found the statistic about how little federal funding rural schools get fascinating! For serving such a huge portion of our population, it is truly shameful and indicative of a larger policy problem that we devote so few resources to the improvement of schooling in rural areas. It is also incredibly clear (at least to me....) that "school choice" is not really a choice in rural areas where opening/running a charter school is a near impossibility. I can foresee a situation where private religious schools see an increase in enrollment, based in part on Devos's policies, which could potentially lead to very interesting social and political outcomes down the road. Above all, I believe public schools are the foundation of our soon-to-be active community members/voters/workers, and to shunt the problem off by offering "school choice" that is not really a choice at all is downright deplorable.

Mollie M said...

I wonder if this issue is also tightly tied to the economy. If public schools struggle or even collapse in rural areas due to some families traveling to different areas, I wonder if this could change the employment possibilities in a small town. As the NEA (National Education Association) points out, in rural areas, schools and school districts are often the single largest employers in rural areas and thus serve as a coordinator for social, cultural, and recreational activities in the community. ( What about regulation/professional development activities? I fear that school troubles will amount to larger community troubles.

K. Harrington said...

Great post! As a former school psychologist for two different rural districts in the Grand Rapids area of Michigan, I have too many opinions about DeVos’s appointment and school of choice. First, I think it is truly unfortunate that DeVos is so disconnected from the realities of rural school districts, given that her family does not live far from rural areas of Michigan. Second, like you mentioned in your post, using online learning as a primary instructional tool is not a viable or evidence-based approach to education for many students. Although online learning may work for some average to above-average students, it would not be appropriate for many low-achieving or low-average students, nor would it be appropriate for most students with learning disabilities, cognitive disabilities, autism or attention deficit disorders.

And last, like you mentioned, some private schools in rural areas are not only deeply religious, but many of them do not have adequate resources, training, or certification for their teachers and staff. Often students with academic or behavioral difficulties that attend private schools are turned away or told that they must attend the area public schools because the private schools are not properly equipped to teach those students. These private schools also look to public school support staff to provide therapy and other support services when they have students that need it. If DeVos expands school of choice programs, it is unclear how rural private schools would accommodate these students.

Finally, without certain protections in place, a federal voucher program could lead to the segregation of certain types of students in specific schools or result in students with disabilities disclaiming their civil rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.