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 Education, explains 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.
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.