Throughout decades of advocacy for school choice, a major impediment has been rural legislators. Republicans and Democrats alike, they are led to believe by the superintendents of rural school districts that school choice will financially destroy, or otherwise somehow irreparably damage rural schools.

Whether they should be or not, rural schools are often the lifeblood of rural communities. In addition to usually very good educations, rural schools provide entertainment, community cohesiveness, and what many call “culture” to small communities. People who come from small rural communities are almost always intensely proud of their roots (author included) and strongly identify with the public school in which they grew up, often having never attended school outside of a one-block campus for twelve full years. It’s understandable that rural citizens will resist anything that might harm their cherished rural schools.

But is it true that school choice programs will harm rural schools? Could it be the case that superintendents of rural schools, who have an outsize influence on legislators, could be selling a false bill of goods? And if, indeed, rural superintendents are being dishonest about the impact of school choice on their schools, who are they protecting?

Rural schools are some of the costliest schools in any state’s educational system, on a per-student basis. It’s easy to understand why. It’s because they’re small. Very small classes are common because they’re simply unavoidable. In order to provide an education comparable to what can be offered in large districts, a physics class in a rural district, for example, might have only a half-dozen kids. In a large district, the class could easily have over 20 students. It’s not hard to see that a teacher’s salary divided by six yields a much higher average than one divided by 20 or more.

But any school of choice that might seek to serve the students and families of a small rural district will have even higher costs because they will be even smaller than the district. Yet, under nearly any choice program in existence, they would be funded with, at best, a high fraction of what the rural district receives on a per-student basis. In addition to the financial vice that any rural school of choice would find squeezing it, why are rural school administrators so seemingly afraid that students might leave their districts in sufficient numbers to harm the districts?

If your rural school district superintendent is afraid of school choice, then the superintendent must be fearful of one following:

  • The district is so over-funded that a very small, and therefore high-cost, school of choice can still operate and pull students from the district, and/or
  • The district, normally superior to most just by virtue of being small and not having to deal with many of the pathologies that prevail in large, urban districts, is so lousy that parents can’t wait to move their children to choice school at the first opportunity, and/or
  • Someone who works in the district is so obnoxious and abusive to children that parents are desperate to find a way out for their children.

Most rural parents and students, as well as school board members, would say that none of these are true. Indeed, the likelihood that there would be enough of an exodus from rural districts to impact them at all is extremely remote. But the superintendents manage to convince parents, school boards, and legislators all the time that school choice is an existential danger to rural schools. Why do rural superintendents make such claims if none of the conditions just described for a mass exodus of students even exist?

Only one explanation makes sense. The rural superintendents are part of the wider system, shared with superintendents and school boards of larger, often better-paying, school districts. For the sake of their careers, every administrator in the public school system will lock arms with each other or even Satan himself, and lie to be in solidarity with one another.

The real truth is that rural superintendents are not afraid of a damaging exodus of families and students from rural schools if even the very broadest school choice program were passed into law. Their true motive is that, for their own personal interests, they are willingly doing the bidding of the big, urban districts, which truly are lousy, and preventing truly and justifiably desperate parents from doing better for their children through school choice – just for their careers.

Byron Schlomach is Director of the 1889 Institute and can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.