The ‘one-room schoolhouse’ returns to rural America

Sister Elizabeth Dunn, center, director of Hope Rural School in the Florida city of Indiantown, population 6,560, believes private schools and public school districts can maintain good relationships. “We don’t compare ourselves,” she says. “We work together. We value what each other is doing.”

The population of rural America has declined by 12.5% since the 2000 Census, but it could be poised for a comeback. Education freedom has a large role to play.

In Rustic Renaissance: Education Choice in Rural America, Jason Bedrick, a research fellow in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, and I explore two mutually exclusive claims made by choice opponents: first, that choice has nothing to offer rural communities because of a lack of choice schools; and second, that school choice programs will destroy rural school districts as families flee to their innumerable other options.

Obviously, these claims cannot both be true, and in fact, both are false. To reverse the decline, rural America desperately needs young families, and a rural education renaissance beckons in the return of the one-room schoolhouse.

Bedrick and I examine the rural claims of school choice opponents by examining the state with the greatest amount of school choice: Arizona. Rural families in Arizona have, by a wide margin, had the greatest access to various choice options for the longest period of time.

In 1994, the Legislature created charter schools and district open enrollment. Arizona now has the nation’s largest charter school sector, and in fact has more rural charter schools than the total number of charter schools in 16 different states with charter school laws: Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, and Wyoming.

In 1997, Arizona lawmakers created the nation’s first tuition tax credit program which subsequently has been expanded several times. Then in 2011, Arizona lawmakers created the nation’s first education savings account program.

The graphics on the left show the percentage of students by state with one or more charter schools operating in their zip code as calculated by the Brookings Institute for the 2014-15 school year. Arizona was by far in first place with 84% of students having one or more charter schools in their zip code. This likely underestimates the role of charter schools in Arizona, as many zip codes fall into the “or more” category in the Grand Canyon State.

Did Arizona’s rural school districts wither up and die under the assault of school choice? Hardly. In fact, quite the opposite has occurred. The National Center for Education Statistics listed 224 regular school districts in Arizona in 1993, the year before choice began. In 2019, the same source listed 226 Arizona regular school districts.

The left part of the chart shows NAEP rural trends for all six exams from the earliest date possible (2007 for Math and Reading, 2009 for Science) to the latest point possible before the COVID-19 pandemic (2019 for Math and Reading, 2015 for Science).

The COVID-19 pandemic hit hard in rural Arizona, especially in Native American communities (Arizona has the nation’s second largest Native American student population and many live in rural communities). When 2022 NAEP scores were released, rural Arizona had ground to make up but demonstrated better progress than the nation as a whole, as seen in the chart below.

Microschools hold a special promise for rural America. Population density always has been a deterrent to the growth of large choice schools in rural communities, and the advent of higher borrowing and construction costs will only further the trend.

Microschools, however, often operate out of informal community spaces and homes and thus do not require either high-population density or expensive capital investment. A more pluralistic set of schooling options will help attract and retain young families, who are a large part of rural America’s most urgent need.

As Step Up For Students’ Ron Matus has documented here and here, former public school teachers are flourishing in rural Florida. This speaks to the traditions of rural America, that “spirit of association” that Alexis de Tocqueville noted as the uniquely American method of challenges through voluntary association.

“One size fits all” schools actually fit few in rural America and elsewhere. Academic stagnation and population decline can successfully be combatted by allowing voluntary associations and exchange to flourish in rural American education.

Rural families have nothing to lose and a world to gain by rediscovering the promise of the one-room schoolhouse.

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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.