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People who say geography means rural areas can’t share in Trump’s school choice vision are wrong. Here’s why

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by Joe Nathan
Chalkbeat
January 5, 2017

Do some school choice programs make sense in rural America? For students like Paige Knutson, Daniel Lopez Gomez, and Merle Vander Weyst, the answer is certainly yes.

President-elect Donald Trump and his choice for secretary of education insist that private-school vouchers are a good idea. I strongly disagree. But there are examples across America that show how public school choice options can help rural students and families. Having worked with rural schools for 28 years, I know that geography isn’t an insurmountable hurdle.

These options include district schools-within-schools, alternative and magnet schools, charter schools, distance learning options, and dual high school/college credit programs. With federal support, the best of them should be identified, strengthened and replicated.

Why? Let’s start with Paige, Daniel, and Merle.

Some years ago, Paige Knutson brought Minnesota legislators to tears as she explained how a rural Minnesota alternative school had saved her life. Knutson, an honor student and cheerleader, was the oldest in a large farm family that was in danger of losing their property. When she became pregnant, she was kicked off the cheerleading squad and removed from the honor society. These weren’t appropriate responses from the school. But they were the reality.

She thought about taking her own life. Fortunately, a friend told her about a nearby alternative school that welcomed her. Her testimony helped convince Minnesota legislators to permit state per-pupil dollars to follow youngsters who attend alternative schools across district lines.

Dozens of communities in rural Minnesota, like Blackduck, Cass Lake, and Redwood Falls, host these alternative schools. One of the most inspiring programs I’ve seen anywhere in the U.S. is the annual MAAP STARS conference, where alternative school students perform, display projects, and earn statewide recognition.

Daniel Lopez Gomez is one of them. He came to the small town of Worthington, Minnesota from Guatemala in 2013, speaking little English. But he blossomed at the Worthington Alternative School. He recently was named “MAAP Student of the Year.”

Thousands of Minnesota students, many of them in rural communities, attend schools of choice, including but not limited to alternative public schools for youngsters with whom traditional schools have not succeeded.

Merle Vander Wyste, who attends the online Blue Sky Charter School, represents another form of rural school choice. Online schools, including Blue Sky, aren’t successful with all students. But they work very well for some young people.

In an award-winning essay, Vander Wyste explained:

“I was never popular in school. Because of bullying I suffered from social anxiety and depression. I often had suicidal thoughts. In my own home, I didn’t have other students telling me how I needed to act. I did not have anyone pressuring me to try drugs. No one told me that the brand of clothing I was wearing was inadequate. I was able to experience my own personal growth as a person.

Attending Blue Sky Charter School has been a great experience for me. It has allowed me to continue my education in a safe, relaxed setting in my home … I work better at night … and I am able to schedule lessons around work or another activity.”

There are other forms of school choice that work in rural settings. They include:

District schools within schools: One way for rural districts to offer more choices is to innovate within the space they already occupy. Forest Lake, Minnesota features two schools in one building, one of which is Central Montessori Elementary. For many years, International Falls Elementary School did the same — one school had traditional grade-level classrooms, and the other operated more like a one-room schoolhouse, with several grades of students working with each other.

Rural charter schools: Most charter schools aren’t in rural areas. But some are: According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there were 732 rural charters enrolling nearly 200,000 students in 2014-15 school year. Charisse Gulosino has provided fascinating maps of rural charters located, for example, on rural American Indian reservations. She also noted that rural charters serve a slightly higher percentage of low-income students than the national average. One of the most well-known is in tiny Henderson, Minnesota, where students at the Minnesota New Country School study and contribute to the local community.

Dual-credit programs: Minnesota and Washington allow 11th and 12th graders to spend time on a college campus (or in Minnesota, to take college courses on a campus or online), with state funds following students paying for the tuition. Minnesota’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Options law also pays for the students’ books and lab fees. Thousands of rural students use these great programs.

I hope that President-elect Trump, DeVos, and Congress will listen to rural, as well as urban and suburban, families that are making great use of these opportunities. Using multiple measures, the federal government can help identify the best of these programs. Then it can help share information, expand and replicate those that are unusually successful.

Joe Nathan has been a public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, National Governors Association project coordinator, researcher, advocate and weekly newspaper columnist. He directs the Center for School Change.