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HPPR Health, Education & Welfare

An Education Expert Questions the Value of School Vouchers for Rural Students

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Alan Richard
/
Chalkbeat

Rural Americans were in large part responsible for handing Donald Trump the presidency. But will he do anything to improve rural schools?

Alan Richard is skeptical. Richard heads the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust. He recently wrote in Chalkbeat that Trump’s central education idea, school vouchers, makes little sense in rural communities. That’s because Rural students often have no viable choices beyond their local public school.

That’s especially true for children of color in the rural Southeast and Southwest, and for Native American kids. For these children, getting money from the government to choose a different school solves nothing. They’re stuck with the school they have.

The solution for rural students isn’t paying for them to go to a different school; it’s making the school they have better. As Richard points out, “financial resources are flat-out scarce in many rural schools”

Richard instead suggests these changes, which I've reprinted from his editorial. You can read the educator’s full comments here:

  • Fixing Title I: Most poor small-town and rural districts receive less money per student under the federal Title I program than larger districts do — even when those larger districts have lower poverty rates, as U.S. News & World Report recently highlighted. Understandably, larger school districts have opposed changes to those formulas. But many of those districts have a greater ability than rural systems to make up for cuts through local taxes or by shifting other resources.
  • Encouraging new early childhood approaches: Child poverty rates are actually higher in rural areas than in urban areas, exposing many students to the “toxic stress” that researchers say inhibits brain development. But many rural children lack access to high-quality early health and education programs. While President Obama has championed universal pre-kindergarten, home-visiting health and education programs are just as promising. The Trump administration could pursue “social impact” funding for such efforts, a strategy House Speaker Paul Ryan and Obama actually agree on.
  • Addressing the shortage of educators: Many rural schools can’t offer the same salaries for teachers and principals than those in wealthy areas. This exacerbates shortages of quality educators, especially in science, math, foreign languages, and special education. I often think of the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, which serves about 1,800 students across a region the size of Minnesota. While an extreme example, it’s real — and many less remote places also struggle to find the educators they need. More innovation within grow-your-own rural educator programs, and more specialized teacher preparation for rural schools, would help.
  • Improving high-speed Internet access: In an age when many urbanites work wherever they carry their laptop, many rural communities lack adequate Internet speed. That makes it harder to provide a high-quality education and harder to attract teachers those districts need.
  • Pushing community-based learning: Higher academic standards and more challenging courses may help to boost the quality of education for rural students. “Place-based learning” can accomplish a lot, too. This strategy encourages students and educators to assess local challenges and then build project-based lessons to address them. The federal government may offer funding for these programs under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, but must ensure that rural districts have help to apply for any grants.