by Félix Pérez; image courtesy of Mark Goebel
Despite the national marketing campaign by President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, vouchers take scarce funding away from public schools, where 90 percent of students attend, and create two different education systems — one private and one public — funded by taxpayers. The risks inherent in vouchers are especially pronounced in rural areas, where there are no or few private school options, and schools often serve as the social center of the community and the sole provider of critical services such as summer lunch and programs, food pantries and sports.
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Private and religious school vouchers have received increasing attention in the past few months as Trump and DeVos have traveled the country extoling their virtues. Unmentioned in their sales pitch is that vouchers would be particularly harmful in rural communities and small towns, where removing funding would destabilize already financially challenged public school systems, and transportation to the nearest private voucher school — which can be an hour away or more — must be paid for and arranged by the student’s family.
The Trump-DeVos voucher proposal’s has drawn opposition from key federal elected officials, including U.S. Senator Patty of Murray, who is the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. In a memo to her Senate colleagues, Murray wrote:
In many rural areas, there are no, or very few, private school options. Students in rural areas often have to travel very far to attend the nearest school. Without taxpayer funded transportation, arranging private transportation would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming for many families in rural areas. For these students and families, their public school is the only real option and claims to the contrary only amount to a ‘false choice.’
According to the Center for American Progress, vouchers are highly unlikely to work and could decimate the public system in nearly 9,000 sparse school districts that have four or fewer schools. After excluding charter schools and regional agencies that are legally considered school districts, 85 percent of the 11,200 regular school districts fall into these two categories of sparse and average districts (a unified school district with five to eight schools, an elementary-school-only district with four to five schools, or a secondary-school-only district with three to five schools) where vouchers are entirely or more than likely to be unworkable, concluded CAP.
Nearly 9 million of the 50 million public school students across the country attend rural schools, finds a forthcoming report from the Rural School and Community Trust. “For rural schools, the emphasis on school choice means little because the closest schools are impossibly far away. Rural educators worry that their schools will gain very little from the school-choice model. If anything, it could siphon away critical funding,” states the organization.
In a Washington Post article using Maine and Alaska as examples of states where rural districts are common, reporters Jose A. DelReal and Emma Brown summarized the shortcomings of the Trump-DeVos proposal this way: “Washington has long designed education policy to deal with urban and suburban challenges, often overlooking the unique problems that face rural schools. . . With a new administration in the White House that prefers “school-choice” approaches — favoring charter schools and private-school vouchers so parents can opt out of public schools and bring taxpayer dollars with them — the nation’s rural schools are left to wonder about their fate.”
Maine and Alaska are not alone by any stretch when it comes to states with a large number of rural schools and districts and few private schools. In Texas, for example, where the state House voted to kill vouchers last week, fewer than half (134) of the state’s 253 counties have even a single private school, and only 74 counties have a private high school. In North Carolina, which has a voucher program, four of 12 counties surveyed (Ashe, Polk, Surry, Washington) have no private schools; five have one each (Alleghany, Lenoir, Lincoln, Stokes, Watauga); two have two each (Madison, Transylvania); and one (WIlkes) has three. There are only a handful of private high schools in the North Carolina counties surveyed, and many of the private schools accept only a limited number of students.
A USA Today column written by Max Marchitello explained why a proposal “centered on giving parents more educational choice simply does not apply to these (rural) communities.” He wrote, “A school reform program predicated on choice cannot work for the vast majority of rural communities because most rural school districts are too small to afford more than one school at a given grade span. In fact, many rural districts are more concerned about keeping the school they have than about adding a new school.”
Concern over the Trump-DeVos voucher proposal’s effect on rural schools and DeVos’ lack of understanding of the needs of rural schools was a major factor why DeVos was the first cabinet nominee in U.S. history to require the vice president to cast a tie-breaking vote. Two Republican senators from states that are highly rural, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voted against confirming DeVos.