School choice would benefit rural students in Texas

School choice would benefit rural students in Texas

The Texas Legislature will soon consider a proposal to give families more freedom to choose learning environments that match their values ​​and meet their children’s individual learning needs.

As Governor Greg Abbott said, “We need to restore parents as the legal people charged with making decisions for their children about their health care and their education.”

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow families to access state funds to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online courses, special needs therapy and many other educational expenses. Nine states have already adopted ESA policies, including four in the past two years.

It’s not hard to see why.

Unnecessarily long school closures, mask mandates, and concerns about the politicization of the classroom have driven public support for education choice policies, such as ESA, to all-time highs.

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In a recent Morning Consult poll, seven in 10 Texans said they support ESAs. Support among parents of school-age children was even higher at 77%.

During last year’s GOP primary, Proposition 9 asked voters whether “Texas parents and guardians should have the right to choose schools, whether public or private, for their children, and funding should follow the student.” Voters answered “yes” by a margin of 88% to 12%.

Some of the highest levels of support for ESAs came from the most rural counties in Texas, including Culberson (97%), Edwards (89%), Kent (87%), McMullen (90%), Kenedy (100% ), Roberts (87%) and Terrell (90%).

But not everyone is on board. Teachers unions and their allies are doing everything they can to block families from accessing alternatives to the district school system.

In an effort to take votes away from Texas legislators who represent rural areas, opponents of ESAs are arguing that choice policies either do not benefit rural areas or are harmful to rural school districts.

For example, the Texas School Boards Association claims that for rural families, “options other than their local public schools are few.”

Meanwhile, failed gubernatorial challenger Beto O’Rourke — who attended the private school himself — called on voters to reject Abbott’s “allegedly radical plan to defund” rural school districts.

These two claims—that there are no schooling opportunities in rural areas and that rural schools are endangered because so many students will leave for those opportunities—are mutually exclusive. They cannot be true at the same time. But both can be – and indeed are – false.

First, as we detail in a new Heritage Foundation report, families in rural areas have access to more educational opportunities than ever before.

About 7 in 10 rural families nationwide live within 10 miles of a private elementary school. Rural areas are also seeing the rise of micro-schools, a modern reimagining of the one-room school.

Microschool chains like Akton Akademia, Adamo Education, Great Hearts, Kai Pods and Prenda are teaching students in small groups, sometimes operating out of homes or church basements. Their approaches vary widely—ranging from classical to Montessori—but all offer greater flexibility and individualized attention than the traditional classroom setting.

Additionally, high-quality virtual schools are available to anyone with a good Internet connection, which is becoming increasingly available in rural America. A 2021 study by the Pew Research Center found that 72% of rural Americans said they have a broadband Internet connection at home, up 19 percentage points from 2016.

The fear that the wide availability of educational options would harm rural schools is completely unfounded. Arizona, for example, has consistently ranked among the top states for educational freedom and choice over the past two decades. More students exercise their school choice options in Arizona than in any other state. If choice policies hurt district schools, then rural Arizona schools would fall apart.

In fact, rural Arizona schools are improving much more than the national average. From 2007 to 2019, rural Arizona students’ fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose a combined 21 points, while scores in rural schools nationally down by two points.

In the most recent post-pandemic NAEP, rural Arizona students were still up a combined nine points, while rural students fell 17 points nationally from 2007.

Education choice policies such as ESAs expand educational opportunities for rural families by incentivizing rural district schools to improve their performance.

By embracing education choice policies, Texas lawmakers can fulfill the promise of America’s education system and ensure that all children have access to the learning environment that best meets their individual needs and helps them reach their potential. their fullness given by God.

Jason Bedrick and Matthew Ladner wrote this for The Heritage Foundation.

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