Special Reports

Separating fact from fiction about rural school choice

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.

How Can I Stay In It But Not Stay In It?

Leaving a Classroom But Starting a School

When advocates talk about school choice, children and families are usually in the foreground. This makes perfect sense. School choice exists to give students more and better options. 

But school choice isn’t just about students. 

Teachers benefit as well. 

School choice creates the opportunity for entrepreneurial educators to start and operate schools aligned to their strengths and their beliefs about how children should be educated. Oftentimes teachers are stuck in the very same schools that children are. Poor management, bad decisions around curriculum or teaching methods, misuse of technology – the list of things that frustrate children and families are the same things that frustrate teachers.

School choice can free teachers from such circumstances.

That is what our new white paper is about.

After being named her district’s Teacher of the Year, Julie Taylor left the public school system to launch her own private school, Alane Academy, in Wauchula, Florida. Among the reasons Taylor cites for the move: too much of a focus on standardized testing, not enough character education and social and emotional learning, and a lack of educator flexibility.

Why teachers are switching from public to private schools

Editor’s note: The Step Up For Students team of Ron Matus, Amy Stringer and Ronda Dry, as part of an ongoing effort to document the positive effects of education choice on educators as well as families, provide an overview in this post of their recent survey with 177 teachers who moved from public to private schools. You can view the full report here.  

These are not joy-filled times for America’s public school teachers. A Merrimack College teacher survey last spring found only 12% were “very satisfied” with their jobs, down from 62% in 2018 and the previous low of 33% in 1986.

More education choice might help.

We surveyed former public school teachers in Florida who switched from public schools to private schools, a transition enabled in part by Florida’s steady expansion of private school choice. And guess what? They’re far happier in their new digs.

In fact, 92% of the switchers said they were more satisfied or far more satisfied.

Our survey also found:

  • The switchers like the values proposition. “Better alignment with morals and values” was the leading reason they were more satisfied, at 67.9%.
  • They like the freedom. Other top reasons included more freedom to teach (66.7%); less bureaucracy (62.9%); and less pressure with standardized testing (61.6%).
  • They’re politically diverse.6% of the switchers identified as Republican, 19.4% as Democrat, 16.6% as independent, and 3.4% as something else.

The survey findings synch with insights shared with us by another group of educators – a group who left public schools to start their own private schools. Our special report on that can be found here.

In both cases, teachers appear to be signaling their preference for work environments that maximize their autonomy. Policymakers across America who are wrestling with challenges in teacher recruitment, retention, and satisfaction should take note.

Beyond all the benefits to students and families, more choice might mean happier teachers, too.

Controlling the Narrative

Parental Choice, Black Empowerment & Lessons from Florida

It has been 31 years since the first modern private school choice program began in Milwaukee, 29 years since the first charter school opened in  Minnesota, and 10 years since Arizona created the nation’s first education savings account program. Yet in many states, the opportunity for America’s 7.7 million Black public-school students to access these potentially life-changing learning options remains out of reach.

Florida is a notably bright exception.

Florida has more than 600,000 Black students, among the highest number of any state. It has among the most expansive suite of education choice options. And now it has among the highest number of Black students enrolled in those options.

The latter shouldn’t be a surprise. Black student achievement across America continues to lag. Black residents are more likely to have negative views of neighborhood schools. Black parents are particularly supportive of school choice. Yet the extent to which Black parents, educators and communities have embraced choice in Florida has been little noticed by the press, policymakers and the general public, both in Florida and beyond.