Left-leaning people everywhere got a big yuk when Betsy DeVos, during her confirmation hearing for US Secretary of Education, cited “potential grizzlies” as a reason to allow guns at schools. As evidence for her assertion, she referenced an earlier exchange she’d had with Wyoming Republican Senator Mike Enzi who had told her about a rural school in his state that needed a fence to protect the school from bears.
Turns out the school doesn’t have a gun and doesn’t seem to have any plans to acquire one, which makes DeVos’ remarks all the more ridiculous.
But there was another exchange DeVos had with a Republican senator from a rural state, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, that deserves far more attention because of what it reveals about how the Trump administration’s education policies will screw rural families who helped vote him into office.
Murkowski shared with the committee that 400 Alaska teachers had met with were to voice concerns about the DeVos nomination because of her agenda to promote “options” to public schools, such as charter schools and vouchers to attend private schools. In these rural communities, where there may be as few as 60 students total, there simply are no other options other than a public school.
Repeatedly, the Senator asked the billionaire school choice proponent for her “commitment to public education, particularly to our rural students who have no choices” and for her “assurance” to states with rural schools that education policies in the Trump administration would not “undermine public schools.”
Republican senators aren’t the only ones in Congress who are concerned that DeVos and Trump and their allegiance to “school choice” will harm rural public school districts. As Politico reports, “Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said on CNN … that he’s ‘troubled’ by DeVos’ views on public education. ‘Public education is everything we have,’ he said, adding that vouchers and charter schools wouldn’t work in a rural state like West Virginia with a spread-out population and limited resources.”
These lawmakers have good reasons for their concerns.
Rural schools make up more than half of the school districts in America and serve around a quarter of the nation’s students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But rural schools are in trouble.
Dropout rates for rural students are significantly worse than in urban districts, suspension rates are higher, school facilities are frequently lower quality, funding is disproportionally lower, and reading proficiency levels are sometimes below statewide averages.
“Compared to students in urban or suburban schools, students in rural areas and small towns are less likely to attend college,” a recent article in The Atlantic notes.
None of these problems will be solved by creating more charter schools and using vouchers to siphon off even more students and resources. In fact, that option will only make things worse.
People who live in rural communities know this and are speaking out against charter schools and voucher programs coming into their school districts.
In Oklahoma, according to a state-based independent news outlet, charter school advocates who want to expand from urban centers, such as Oklahoma City and Tulsa, out to small rural communities are encountering resistance from “district school leaders and parent and teacher groups, who say charter school growth will erode state and local financial support of district schools.”
This resistance is popping up in rural North Carolina communities too. Many of the school choice skeptics in that state have no doubt noticed what happened in Haywood County, a rural mountain community in the western part of the state, where a local public school beloved by the community suddenly closed due to slow, steady enrollment drops. Administrators of the district’s schools “attribute their two-year 400-student decline to brick and mortar charter schools as well as virtual charter schools opening in the area.”
Voucher programs are also drawing the ire of rural communities.
In Nevada, a voucher-like program that gives parents the choice to tap into their children’s public education funding to pay for private or religiously-affiliated school tuition has been stymied by the State Supreme Court, but state officials are concocting a work around to evade the court order. Many parents aren’t happy about that. Those parents and public officials who live in rural communities note that applicants for the vouchers tend to live in the most affluent, urban parts of the state. But for parents who live in small towns and remote crossroads, “there is no choice,” an official from a rural community told a local news outlet. “It doesn’t help [these] parents at all.”
In Texas, where state lawmakers are attempting to enact a voucher program similar to the one being pushed in Nevada, opposition to “choice” is coming from “republicans from rural Texas districts,” according to an Austin news channel. One opposing voice interviewed in the report is a superintendent of a rural district with only 438 students where the local school has been the “soul of the town” for more than 100 years.
“Rural citizens tend to be highly involved with their schools,” says Karen Eppley, a university professor and expert on rural education. “The schools are often the social anchor of the community, and they provide services not available elsewhere, like sports, summer lunch programs, night classes, and food pantries. They also tend to be major employers.”
In an interview with Eppley in The Atlantic, she argues, ” School choice is really complicated in rural areas … When you pull those students out, then students who have remained in the host school are at a disadvantage … It can be financially devastating to schools that are already operating on the proverbial shoestring.”
What’s sadly ironic is that these rural communities that will perhaps be most devastated by the school choice plan DeVos and Trump are about to foist on the nation are the very communities that voted overwhelmingly Trump into office.
According to Pew Research, “National exit poll[s] documented how Trump and his populist message disproportionately appealed to both white men and women living in rural America.”
The “anxieties that are more deeply felt by rural whites” according to Pew, propelled Trump to large margins of victory in small towns and rural communities. And the gap between the consciousness of these voters and their white peers in the cities and suburbs is growing larger with every passing year.
Of course, prominent voices on the left have become famous for pointing out that white rural Americans often vote against their self-interest. But does that mean they’ll support education policies that are counter to the best interests of their children too?
Someone should ask them that.