Friday, April 21, 2017

School choice policy unlikely to supplement education for rural schools

School choice initiatives will harm rural schools disproportionately, despite Michael McShane's claims to the contrary. McShane is an education policy expert with the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri 501(c)(3) non-profit that advocates "free markets and individual liberty" such as the reimbursement of private school parents for property taxes intended for public schools. In a recent article for the U.S. News and Review,  McShane maintains that concerns over new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos's penchant for school choice are embellished and exaggerated.

McShane proposes that School Choice is not only a solution for some parts of the country but "offer[s] a great deal to rural communities." Specifically, he says, this initiative will increase course access by granting funding flexibility to students and allowing them to take courses from outside providers.

His suggestion is dismissive of a handful of uniquely rural impediments.  Chief amongst the challenges are access to internet and school recruiting abilities. Indeed, McShane seems more concerned about talking about his travels and efforts to avoid tornadoes than with addressing the infrastructure issues that undermine his thesis.

Rural schools' access to internet

McShane's main proposal is that School Choice allows students to take a handful of courses from outside providers.
These courses might be offered by a university, a for-profit provider, a nearby community college or technical school or even another school district. Maybe a small rural district wants to make the investment to hire a Mandarin teacher and can generate revenue by sharing his or her class in an online course marketplace for surrounding districts. This could be virtual instruction, or it could be an in-person class at the local carpenters’ union apprenticeship center.
Sidestepping the absurdity of why a rural school district would hire a Mandarin teacher when they struggle to maintain a full staff to teach traditional subjects like math and english, this proposal is narrow minded. Virtual instruction requires internet access and a computer, stepping stones that rural schools struggle with for economic and supply reasons. Infrastructure and building resources are far from rural areas making the cost to build rural schools is typically high. Economically, service providers cannot justify implementing the far-reaching infrastructure within their own business models and because of struggles to achieve economies of scale.

Even where internet may be provided at the school, complete lack of home internet access or restricted home internet access is a long-standing issue. Where schools are able to teach students computer skills or provide a unique course in the classroom via internet, it is nearly impossible for students to complete their homework online if they do not have broadband at home.

Major efforts to reverse this challenge and the accompanying harm to students were stalled in February. New Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pal stopped federal subsidies promised to a handful of low-income home internet accessibility projects. The federal Lifeline Program seeks to bridge the digital divide, making information and technology available to low-income people. It is no secret that rural areas experience higher rates of poverty. This move will disproportionately harm rural students who not only do not have access to internet but also do not have facilities to use it temporarily, such at county libraries, internet cafes, and coffee shops offering Wi-Fi. Pai asserted that this move was to preserve administrative procedures. While this may be true, it is contrary to his professed policy agenda of closing the digital divide.

At a state level, the California Assembly has maintained a commitment to closing the digital divide since 2007. The California Advanced Services Fund was established to provide grants to telephone corporations spearheading programs that address the divide. This program will sunset in 2020 despite 57 percent of rural households lacking reliable broadband service. At least one new assemblymember, Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, is determined to ensure the program continues in the state. Assemblywoman Aguiar-Curry represents rural Northern California populations in Sacramento Valley, Wine Country, and Parts of the North Bay.  Indeed, she has proposed a constitutional amendment that would give local government flexibility in funding critical infrastructure, including broadband.

Rural school recruiting

McShane suggests that rural schools can hire a unique teacher and then market their curriculum to other schools, as through an an online course. His suggestion ignores the fact that rural schools struggle to retain high-quality teachers for reasons such as funding, limited teacher supply, lack of rigorous training and certification options, and geographic isolation.

Applicants for such a position are not likely to be local community members. Rural schools lack the material advantages of wealthier districts to attract teachers: a critical mass of high-achieving students, modern school buildings, and robust opportunities for professional development. Younger teachers that could make a long-term commitment to a rural school find the isolation of being far from large cities unattractive. Further, it is difficult for potential teachers to see the benefits of rural teaching like small class sizes, greater curriculum development autonomy, and sincere relationships with parents in the smaller community, over the pitfalls.

Even if rural areas did not lack internet connectivity in their schools and in their homes, it is nearly inconceivable that they would be able to find a mandarin teacher for such a program.

Homeschool opportunities 

McShane briefly suggests that a homeschool-private school hybrid, available under the School Choice policy, should be especially attractive to rural communities. Yet this option is only available to certain people and a detriment of the community overall.  Only parents who do not need to work can choose to home school so usually well-educated, middle-class parents. But if these families homeschool, there will not be families who have more time and resources putting their energies into the local rural public schools. This exacerbates class divisions educationally and economically.

McShane is ill informed about the particular struggles of rural schools, which makes his short article problematic and an over-simplified -if not dead wrong, promotion for School Choice. His largest flaw is to over-idealize rural spaces. He is not the first person nor will he be the last, but deeper research and support is required before his claims may be supported. 


EAG said...

I appreciate that your post highlights school choice policy issues that are not discussed as often. However, I think that school choice voucher programs may negatively affect rural education in more fundamental ways as mentioned in a previous blog post ( Courtney wrote about several problems that may come from school choice voucher programs, such as siphoning away funding from rural schools, teacher shortages, and the impotance of public schools as social anchors in rural communities. Furthermore, bussing students to schools father away will increase costs. (

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