Betsy DeVos has a rural problem: Column

By Max Marchitello, The Des Moines Register

Education nominee is losing Senate support over a reform agenda that won’t help areas Trump won. – February 2, 2017

In no small part, rural America propelled President Trump to victory last November. Broadly speaking, the more rural the state, the larger his margin of victory. So it is puzzling that he would nominate a U.S. secretary of Education whose policy priorities offer little to people living in rural areas.

Trump’s nominee, Betsy DeVos, is a billionaire philanthropist and advocate who has focused intensely on letting parents use public funds to send their children to the traditional, charter or private school of their choice. That background now is threatening her confirmation. Several senators who intend to oppose her, including Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have specifically cited worries about rural areas.

While many in education policy can (and do) debate the merits of school choice in urban settings, its benefits to rural communities are much less clear. 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.

Simply put, most rural districts lack the enrollment and finances to support multiple schools. In fact, only around 20% of them currently have more than one elementary school. The problem gets worse as children grow up: Only 7% of rural districts have more than a single high school. According to recent federal data, only around 6% of rural students attend a private school, suggesting private options are also uncommon in rural communities.

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Families in rural school districts are actually the least likely in the country to have a choice about where to send their children to school. As a result, a school improvement strategy centered on giving parents more educational choice simply does not apply to these communities.

America’s rural schools face numerous educational and financial challenges. And unfortunately, expanding school choice will do little to solve them. Rural schools serve a greater proportion of students below the poverty line than schools in suburban areas, and most states provide less funding to the very districts that need the most support. High-poverty schools generally provide lower access to advanced curricula. Furthermore, rural schools struggle to recruit and retain high-quality teachers. Stretching the already limited resources in rural communities to accommodate additional schools would likely hurt rather than help the situation.

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When pressed during her Senate confirmation hearing by Murkowski and Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming about the applicability of school choice in their rural states, DeVos noted the potential to expand virtual charter schools. But for this to work, DeVos would have to address the fact that most e-schools provide a low-quality education. As a supplemental service, much like in Florida, distance learning can be part of the solution. But more importantly there needs to be significantly more state and federal investment so that rural schools can provide students with greater learning opportunities.

Simply recycling a reform agenda better suited for urban areas is insufficient to meet the needs of rural schools. If Trump is serious about delivering for the voters who put him in the White House, then he needs to put forward a robust agenda genuinely tailored to rural needs that focuses not only on school innovation and choice, but also on providing more resources and opportunities to rural students and families. That is what will make America great.

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