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Special Report:

Separating fact from fiction about rural school choice

During this year’s campaign season, the Democratic candidate for governor of Oklahoma claimed private school choice would devastate rural public schools and the communities they serve. The term she liked to repeat to conjure fear was “rural school killer.”

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

Like so many other myths about choice, though, this one doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Take a look at Florida.

For two decades, Florida has been a national leader in expanding choice. The result for rural areas?

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 education programming 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 district enrollment.

More than 70 percent of Florida families are eligible for income-based choice scholarships. Yet over the past 10 years, Florida’s 30 rural school districts lost 2.4 percentage points in enrollment share to private schools. That’s it.

So on the one hand, choice is giving thousands of often desperate rural families the opportunity to access options for their kids. On the other, the overwhelming majority of rural families continue to choose district schools.

To combat the misinformation so rife in other states, we highlighted five key facts about choice in rural Florida in a new brief, “Rerouting the Myths of Rural Education Choice.” We also produced a short video spotlighting a rural school founded by a former public school district Teacher of the Year.