Public Schools

Here’s Why Private School Vouchers Won’t Work For Rural Kids

  Samantha Sokol

Rural residents and communities have long held the line against attempts to create private school voucher programs. They’ve recognized the harms that private school vouchers do to rural public schools. And they know vouchers don’t provide actual “choice” to rural families, nor do they provide better educational opportunities. Rural voices from superintendents to Farmers Unions have powerfully stood up to voucher proponents. And rural Republican lawmakers in prior legislative sessions have blocked the creation of voucher programs even in deep-red states like Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas.

But in 2023, pro-voucher leaders are determined to ram voucher programs through state legislatures over the objections of rural residents. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and South Carolina legislative leaders have all vowed to pass bills to create voucher programs this year. In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds already signed a bill to create a new, universal voucher program. Reynolds’ allies ensured that the bill bypassed appropriations committees and banned any amendments so the bill’s many opponents, rural, urban and suburban, would not get in the way.

Some are now claiming that rural resistance to vouchers is overblown, rural residents should get on board with universal statewide voucher programs and that rural communities would actually benefit from these proposals to drain public money from public schools. They are wrong, and they’re selling a fantasy. Here are the facts:

Few rural kids have access to private schools.

To attend private schools, rural students would often be required to endure long, costly commutes and even pay for the transportation themselves, as many private schools do not provide transportation to students. Take Iowa: 41 of 99 counties in the state have no private schools at all. An additional 23 counties contain just one private school. Without even taking into account private schools’ capacity to accept additional students, vouchers are not a realistic choice.

Vouchers don’t provide better educational opportunities for rural kids.

Some voucher proponents claim that it doesn’t matter that there aren’t rural private school options, because rural kids can just go to online school, or new private schools can just pop up. But this is a major problem with private school voucher programs, not a selling point. Short-lived, low-quality private schools run by inexperienced profiteers are prone to failure. And virtual schools have a notoriously dismal performance record, with a 54.6% graduation rate, compared to 85% nationwide. We all know that the virtual learning forced by the COVID pandemic, despite educators’ best efforts, harmed students’ achievement. We cannot permanently relegate rural kids to these lousy options.

Vouchers harm rural public schools.

Private school vouchers siphon limited, desperately needed funding away from public schools and send it to private schools. This is particularly harmful to rural schools, which rely more heavily on state funding. When statewide voucher programs are implemented, state funding is drained away from rural districts to pay for vouchers for students who live in more populous cities and suburbs. This results in cuts to programs and services for rural students.

Vouchers undermine rural public communities as a whole.

A decision by a rural family to withdraw a child from the public school and enroll them elsewhere doesn’t mean that the family disconnects from the school system. This is because rural and small-town public schools do far more than just educate kids. They serve as a social and economic backbone in rural communities: They are a primary employer, a gathering place for athletics, arts and community meetings and a provider of health care, nutrition and food pantries to many residents. In the long run, undermining and draining money from rural public schools can decimate entire rural communities.

In addition to all of these harms specific to rural areas, vouchers cause a host of other problems for all communities, including that they don’t improve academic achievement, lack accountability and transparency and violate fundamental principles of religious freedom. That’s why we won’t stop fighting these efforts to create and expand voucher programs, and to protect our public schools.

No matter where you live, if you haven’t yet done so, contact your legislators and send them a message urging them to oppose private school vouchers and ensure that public funds stay in public schools.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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