Rural school choice: a personal perspective

January 29, 2014 | By JONATHAN WILLIAMS

People across the country are celebrating National School Choice Week. The vast majority of school choice discussions focus on the struggles of kids in failing urban school districts. However, school choice also has a role to play in rural areas. Schools in these communities enroll one of four American students. In these communities four out of every ten students are low income, and only 27 percent of high school graduates attend college. Due to geography these schools often lack the school options available in large metro cities. As a result, many students remain trapped in struggling schools.

My own experiences in semi-rural Northern California illustrate recent changes in school choice. During my first three years of school, I attended the struggling public school where I was assigned. However, after my third year a small one room school hired a new principal. He contacted my parents to see if we would consider transferring districts. After he mentioned a number of new initiatives, we happily agreed. Because the school offered individualized attention and the principal had great flexibility students were able to participate in many innovative programs. These efforts inspired many students, including me, to be excited about school and learning.

Unfortunately, most rural students don’t have these options. My parents had to agree to drive 15 miles each day to the school. Each year we also had to request permission from my assigned school district to attend the school of our choice when they refused my parents had to appeal to the county school board—a high stakes and stressful experience for a 7 year old. My experiences didn’t involve turning against all public schools—in fact most of my siblings remained in our assigned school system. But through these options my parents were able to craft an education to the individual needs of each of their children.

Unfortunately, these options aren’t available to many families. California has taken some steps to increase access to school choice for students in rural communities. My youngest brother was able to attend an independent study home charter school that used technology to reach remote students—but only after his attempt to transfer within the district was rejected. California’s open enrollment program, enacted in 2010, also reduces the barriers that keep students in struggling schools such as mine. However, as this paper makes clear, school choice remains a pipe dream for many rural families. This inspirational video provides insights into the challenges and benefits of expanding rural school choice. If you would like to learn more about how you can help your community please register for this webinar on Thursday from 10 to 1115 (PST). You can also learn more about rural education innovation through the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho.