The High-Performing School Deserts of Rural America

The High-Performing School Deserts of Rural America
(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Among education reform advocates, improving urban education is often the focus. That’s no surprise since tens of thousands of kids in cities suffer from decades of educational failure and limited opportunity. But often overlooked are the challenges and problems plaguing rural education. Sometimes opportunities for success are just as limited, or even more so, than for students in cities. 

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One example of this is found in Mattoon, Wisconsin, a village of just 400 residents. When the elementary school closed in 2016, most students from the North Central Wisconsin village found themselves riding the bus 45 minutes to Antigo. The distant, sprawling Unified School District of Antigo has five low-performing schools but only one high-performing elementary school. For the kids in Mattoon, attending a high-performing school isn’t really an option.  

The problem of high-performing school deserts is highlighted in in a new study from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL). The study identifies ZIP codes and regions in the state of Wisconsin without access to high-performing schools. High-performing school deserts are defined as locations that have no high-performing schools within ten miles, based on WILL’s value-added analysis of state test data. 

The study, released last month, identified 134 high-performing school deserts out of approximately 899 ZIP codes—about 15%. About 40,000 students live in these primarily rural ZIP codes. High-performing school deserts aren’t typically found in urban areas because high-quality schools can exist side-by-side with low-quality ones. Though students from low-income areas may not have ready access to these schools, they are relatively close by. In rural areas, there is often only one option at a particular grade level. And if it happens to be a low-performing school, families are left with nowhere to turn.   

There are a number of ways that policymakers could address this problem. First, more than 15 states now have private educational choice programs, but bureaucratic barriers to entry remain high in many of them. Research shows  that more requirements make high-quality schools less likely to participate in these programs. Advocates should work to remove the limitations on these programs that disincentivize participation. Removing enrollment caps, which can make it difficult for schools to launch that are focused on serving students on vouchers, would encourage participation. Policymakers could also look at changing requirements for choice schools such as participating in state testing, as many private schools prefer to use nationally norm-referenced tests like the MAP.

But special solutions will be needed to address rural areas. Programs that allow students to supplement the education they are receiving in their home district with classes from another district are relevant. These can be done in person, but virtual options are likely to be more promising and available in the future. The coronavirus pandemic has made virtual education  more popular than ever before, and there is a real opportunity for a broader embrace of such programs.   

Another factor for policymakers to consider is increasing access to facilities in rural areas, including vacant schools. Three years after Mattoon’s elementary school closed, a religious group called Shepherd’s Watch approached the Antigo School District about purchasing the vacant building. Antigo was willing to sell the building, until they learned that Shepherd’s Watch wanted to use the vacant building to open a private school in the choice program. WILL is now assisting Shepherd’s Watch in a lawsuit against the Antigo school district. Policies that encourage the sale of vacant school buildings could also help bring school choice to rural areas.  

The education reform community cannot ignore rural communities—where public schools are failing, and families have few options. In many ways, this will require a difficult and more nuanced approach that addresses the unique challenges and needs of rural America. It may not be as simple to serve the children who live in sparsely populated regions. But that doesn’t eliminate our responsibility to meet their needs. Children in every community, rural and urban, deserve high-performing school options. 

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