Special report: Separating fact from fiction about rural school choice

Editor’s note: The Step Up For Students team of Ron Matus, director, policy and public affairs, and Dava Hankerson, director, enterprise data and research, provides an overview in this post of their recent brief demonstrating that education choice is growing in rural Florida. You can view the full brief here.

The Democratic candidate for governor of Oklahoma this year made it a hallmark of her campaign to claim private school choice would devastate rural public schools and the communities they serve. She called choice a “rural school killer.”

The candidate lost. But the myth lives on, not only in Oklahoma but in other states with vast stretches of rural heartland and little to no school choice.

To combat it, we turn to a state that actually has a lot of choice in rural areas: Florida.

Our new brief, “Rerouting the Myths of Rural Education Choice,” highlights five key facts about choice in rural Florida. To put faces on the facts, we also produced a short video spotlighting a rural school founded by a former public school district Teacher of the Year.

Florida is well positioned for myth busting here. It’s been a national leader in expanding education choice for two decades, and its rural communities have benefited.

Florida has highly regarded charter schools from the Forgotten Coast in the Panhandle to the edge of the Everglades. It has high-quality private schools from the Apalachicola National Forest to the heart of Florida cattle country. And in scores of small towns like Chipley and Williston and LaBelle, it has resourceful parents using state-funded education savings accounts (ESAs) to customize learning for their children.

At the same time – and this is critical – the expansion of private school choice and ESAs has not put much of a dent in rural public school districts.

More than 70% of Florida families are eligible for income-based choice scholarships. Yet over the past 10 years, the share of rural students enrolled in private schools rose a mere 2.4 percentage points.

So, on the one hand, education choice is helping thousands of rural families access life-changing options for their kids. On the other, the overwhelming majority of rural families continue to choose district schools.

Policymakers should proceed accordingly.

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