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Would Donald Trump’s Giant Voucher Proposal Work For Rural Students?

By Alyson Klein — December 12, 2016 4 min read
Carolyn Nelson is the lone teacher at Glenwood Elementary school, located in the heart of the GIla National Forest.
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Most people have taken President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to tap billionaire GOP donor and school choice champion Betsy DeVos as his education secretary as a sign that he wants to make good on his campaign promise to create a massive new school choice program.

One problem? School choice, at least in the form of vouchers or brick-and-mortar charter schools, isn’t easy to do in the rural states and communities that played such a large part in Trump’s victory in the electoral College.

Just ask Don German, the executive director of the Arizona Rural Schools Association. His state has embraced school choice, both in the form of education savings accounts and charter schools. But, for the most part, those options haven’t reached isolated districts.

“There’s very few charters that want to set up in the very small and rural communities in Arizona,” he said. In fact, nationally, just 7.5 percent of charter school students live in rural areas, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 57 percent live in urban areas.

And if there was a big federal voucher program, along the lines of the $20 billion proposal Trump pitched on the campaign trail? “I don’t think it would affect rural kids that much,” German said. “Are their parents going to want to drive 40 miles” to take them to a private school, he asked. “Are they going to want to drive 25 miles? The vast majority of rural students are going to stay at their home schools.”

One option for rural schools is, of course, virtual education. But there’s evidence that virtual charters generally don’t perform as well as regular public schools. (See Edweek’s investigation into the sector here.) And some especially isolated areas may not have access to the broadband necessary to offer those options.

Some rural state chiefs though, think they might be able to work with the incoming administration and other policymakers interested in championing choice through another avenue: offering students and parents the chance to better tailor traditional public schooling to their needs through a more-customized approach to learning.

“Our population density is just not there to realistically support choices of different schools,” said Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota’s superintendent of public instruction. “What I think will be an opportunity for North Dakota to improve [our] education system will be student rather than school choice. Options. Student options. And I’m eager about that. That personalized learning, individual education plan.”

Melody Schopp, the state chief in neighboring South Dakota, is on the same page.

“I feel that we should make sure that our education system is providing school choice from within the school, from within the public school system. If we’re doing school right, that kid should be able to choose how they want to learn,” Schopp said. “School choice doesn’t mean that you have to leave the public school system to go to something better. ... We should make our choices within the school.”

Of course, Trump’s large-scale choice program may not materialize anyway—thanks in part to GOP lawmakers representing rural states.

When Congress was working on the Every Student Succeeds Act last year, lawmakers considered a proposal that looked a lot like the program Trump pitched on the campaign trail. Called the “Scholarship for Kids Act,” the legislation would have allowed federal funds for poor children and students in special education to follow children to the school of their choice.

But it failed on a vote of 45-52, with a handful of Republicans joining all of the chamber’s Democrats to defeat it. And most of the GOP dissenters included rural senators, including Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Jerry Moran of Kansas, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

In fact, Marty West, a professor of education at Harvard University who helped craft the “Scholarships for Kids” proposal while working as a senior adviser to Alexander, isn’t sure that the votes for something like that would materialize even if there were 60 Republicans in the Senate—enough to clear procedural hurdles—because of the objections of rural lawmakers.

If any large-scale federal choice program happens, West said, it would likely be voluntarily for states, as Scholarships for Kids would have been. And he expects that many rural states would opt to keep their federal money flowing to public schools only, in part because of pressure from their local school districts.

So will Trump voters be disappointed if the big voucher plan he ran on doesn’t happen? Probably not, Chester E. Finn, who worked at the U.S. Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan, wrote on Flypaper, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s blog.

That’s partly because, if a voucher program benefits anyone, it’s likely to be children in urban areas, whose parents, for the most part, didn’t vote for Trump.

The rural voters who supported him, on the other hand, Finn wrote, are probably not itching for vouchers, in part because they’re not very practical for their communities.

“Choice, save for the virtual kind, is harder to make work in spread-out suburbs, small towns, and rural areas, where one seldom has workable access to multiple schools,” Finn wrote. “I strongly suspect that most Trump voters with kids—to the extent that education is on their minds—are chiefly interested in having their current schools work better, ensure a decent and prosperous future for their students, including readiness for real jobs.”

Bonus: Check out this smart piece at Chalkbeat by former Edweek reporter Alan Richard on this issue. Richard, who is chairman of the board for the Rural School and Community Trust, an advocacy group, also offers suggestions for what a Trump administration—or any administration—can do to help rural schools improve.