Education Empowerment

School Choice in Rural America: New Opportunities for Endless Potential

This article was authored by Alesandro Demarchi, a research intern at Libertas Institute.

Critics often argue school choice harms rural communities by not offering them feasible educational options and eroding the standing of their public schools, which already face unique challenges.

Evidence gathered from states that implemented such programs shows otherwise. Families in remote areas have more non-public schooling options than ever before. The rise of innovative private schools, microschools, and online learning platforms has not resulted in declining rural public schools, far from it.

Data from school choice programs has debunked the myth that rural communities have no access to educational options outside of traditional public schools.

For instance, Florida’s school choice programs were instrumental in nearly doubling the number of rural private schools and the enrollment of these institutions. Iowa’s ESA program has received applications from all but three of the state’s counties, including the vast majority of rural ones with less than 10,000 people. Almost all K-12 students in Georgia (99.2%) live within a 30-minute drive of a private school, which they are able to attend if they wish thanks to the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act.

Online learning platforms have also boosted parents’ ability to choose non-traditional educational paths for their children. With 91% of Americans in rural areas having access to three or more high-speed internet providers, online schooling is now a reliable option in remote areas.

Additionally, despite what critics say, the idea that school choice erodes the academic quality of rural public schools is unfounded.

Piute Schools.

The competition created by school choice programs has been found by more than twenty studies conducted to improve the performances of public schools, especially when parents were given the greatest freedom of choice.

Following the introduction of Arizona’s ESA program, the state’s rural public schools have exceeded nationwide performance averages and shown remarkable resilience following the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic. Similarly, Indiana’s voucher program did not undermine public schools’  test scores and graduation rates and actually showed positive improvements for low-income students.

The Utah Fits All Scholarship, the Beehive State’s ESA program, will bring new opportunities to the 15% of K-12 students living in rural areas. These include private schools, microschools, and online learning opportunities available in Utah’s most remote areas.

Private schools such as White House Academy focus on traditional liberal arts and sciences in their curriculum, in addition to faith-based character development and family engagement in activities. Castle Valley Academy provides students with a hands-on approach to their studies with a blend of outdoor extracurriculars. Heron School, located in Moab, allows adolescents with special educational needs to construct a curriculum based on their strengths and interests. Additionally, the Utah Legislature’s Senate Bill 13 provided a path for the growth of microschools within the state. Wider networks like Prenda offer a whole set of educational paths; while institutions such as Wilderland Academy, located in Liberty, focus on the strengths provided by rural surroundings (nature-oriented activities and a curiosity-led learning process).

With 96.1% of Utahns having access to high-speed internet, online schools and homeschooling support resources are invaluable alternatives to traditional public schools. Utah Connections Academy is a charter school offering online K-12 public education, with one-on-one support and personalized educational paths. Ensign Peak Academy is an LDS Church-affiliated online private institution providing students with personalized curricula, character development, and mentoring. The state’s ESA program ensures any online learning or homeschooling support resources are now in reach for all interested parents.

School choice programs will unlock the potential of all students in Utah, both rural and those along the Wasatch Front. At the same time, they will provide the healthy competition needed for schools to thrive and find ways to face the challenges they encounter.