School choice would benefit rural students in Texas - GulfToday

School choice would benefit rural students in Texas

Representational image.

Other than the local public schools, options for Texas children are few and far between.

Jason Bedrick and Matthew Ladner, Tribune News Service

The Texas legislature will soon consider a proposal to give families greater freedom to choose learning environments that align with their values and meet their children’s individual learning needs.

As Gov. Greg Abbott put it, “We need to restore parents as the rightful people in charge of making the decisions for their children about their health care and about their education.”

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, let families access state funds to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online courses, special needs therapy and numerous other educational expenses. Nine states have already adopted ESA policies, including four in the last two years.

It’s not hard to understand why.

Unnecessarily long school shutdowns, mask mandates and concerns over the politicisation of the classroom have propelled public support for education choice policies, like ESAs, to all-time highs. In a recent Morning Consult poll, seven in 10 Texans said they supported ESAs. Support among parents of school-aged children was even higher at 77%.

During last year’s GOP primary, Proposition 9 asked voters whether “Texas parents and guardians should have the right to select schools, whether public or private, for their children, and the funding should follow the student.” Voters answered “yes” by a margin of 88% to 12%.

Some of the highest levels of support for ESAs came from the most rural counties in Texas, including Culberson (97%), Edwards (89%), Kent (87%), McMullen (90%), Kenedy (100%), Roberts (87%), and Terrell (90%).

But not everyone is on board. The teachers unions and their allies are doing everything they can to block families from accessing alternatives to the district school system.

In an effort to peel away votes from Texas legislators representing rural areas, opponents of ESAs are arguing that choice policies either don’t benefit rural areas or are harmful to rural district schools.

For example, the Texas Association of School Boards claims that for rural families, “options other than their local public schools are few and far between.” Meanwhile, failed gubernatorial challenger Beto O’Rourke — who attended private school himself — urged voters to reject Abbott’s supposed “radical plan to defund” rural district schools. These two claims — that there are no schooling options in rural areas and that rural schools are imperiled because so many students will leave for those options — are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be true simultaneously. But they can both be — and indeed are — false. First, as we detail in a new Heritage Foundation report, families in rural areas have access to more education options than ever before. About 7 in 10 rural families nationwide live within 10 miles of a private elementary school. Rural areas are also seeing the rise of microschools, a modern reimagining of the one-room schoolhouse.

Microschool networks like Acton Academy, Adamo Education, Great Hearts, Kai Pods and Prenda are teaching students in small groups, sometimes operating out of homes or church basements. Their approaches vary greatly — ranging from classical to Montessori — but all offer greater flexibility and individualised attention than the traditional classroom environment.

Additionally, high-quality virtual schools are available to anyone with a decent internet connection, which is becoming increasingly available in rural America. A 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 72% rural Americans said they have a broadband internet connection at home, up 19 percentage points since 2016.

Fears that the wide availability of education options would harm rural schools are entirely unfounded. Arizona, for example, has consistently ranked among the top states for education freedom and choice over the past two decades. More students exercise their school-choice options in Arizona than in any other state. If choice policies harmed district schools, then Arizona’s rural schools would be falling apart.

In fact, Arizona’s rural schools are improving much more than the national average. From 2007 to 2019, Arizona rural students’ fourth and eighth grade reading and math scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress increased by a combined 21 points, while scores in rural schools nationally decreased by two points. On the most recent NAEP, post-pandemic, Arizona’s rural students were still up a combined nine points, while rural students nationally dropped 17 points from 2007.

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