February 1, 2023

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When Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall announced last year that he would shelve a school-choice bill, he suggested that the choice wouldn’t help rural students, citing his hometown . “The obvious question for a person living in Atoka, Oklahoma – population 3,000, county 12,000 – [is] What does a kid do with a coupon?” McCall said. “What are you doing with it?”

Families in Eastpoint, Florida know the answer.

Eastpoint is a commercial fishing village located one hour and 40 minutes from Tallahassee on Florida’s Forgotten Coast. It has 2,614 inhabitants. It is in a county with 12,451 residents. And it now has a distinctive little private school called EDCorps High School. Most of the students there come from working-class families, and nearly all take advantage of government-funded elective scholarships.

Private schools like this have sprung up all over rural Florida, many in towns as small as Atoka. This is the reality of educational choice in rural areas, from a state where it is not an abstraction.

For years, anti-electoralists in states like Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa — places with lots of rural heartland but not many private school options — have perpetuated the idea that school choice can’t work in rural areas.

But is that really true?

To find out, my colleague Dava Hankerson and I took a closer look at our own garden.

Florida has some of the oldest and most expansive private school election programs in America. Between Miami and Disney is a vast patchwork of open country dotted with cattle ranches, orange groves and proud little towns. We focused on the 30 counties that the state designates as rural. And we’ve summarized our findings in a new report, “Redirecting the Myths of Rural Education Choices.” (We also put together a five-minute video about a great example of rural decision-making, Alane Academy in Wauchula, population 5,001.)

Two findings stand out.

First, a growing number of rural families are benefiting from choices. The number of students taking advantage of school choice grants and education savings accounts topped 8,500 last year, more than triple the participation a decade ago.

But secondly—and this cannot be overemphasized—this expansion has left little in the way of a dip in rural school district enrollments. This is critical, as many opponents of school choice claim that school choice will “kill” rural public schools.

That’s not what’s happening in Florida.

Over the past 10 years, as Florida expanded private school choices more than any other state in America, the percentage of rural Florida students enrolled in private schools increased 2.4 percentage points to 6.9%. That’s it, although more than 70% of Florida families are eligible for elective scholarships.

Rural Florida families get the best of both worlds. The overwhelming majority still choose traditional public schools, which in many cases have been successful in anchoring rural communities. (Sixteen of the 30 counties received an A or B grade from the state this year, with the remainder receiving a C grade.) At the same time, families who need something else can access it.

Supply is also growing in rural areas to meet demand. In the past two decades, the number of private schools in rural Florida counties has grown from 69 to 120. These are indigenous schools, founded in many cases by former public school teachers who are deeply rooted in their communities.

At Eastpoint, ED Corps High School emphasizes life skills, job skills, and industry certifications. Students spend a third of their time outdoors, often working on conservation projects that align with fishing, forestry and ecotourism, which are cornerstones of the local economy.

The principal of the school was a public school teacher for 36 years; For seven years she ran the local teachers’ union. But now she faces a choice after seeing how options can change lives.

A similar story unfolded an hour north.

Bristol is a city of 996 on the edge of a National Forest in Liberty County, Florida’s most rural. Five years ago, a family of educators with a combined 200 years of experience working in local public schools founded Gold Star Private Academy. The family didn’t want to demolish the school district; In fact, three of its members were former superintendents. They simply wanted to offer a quality option for families desperate for a school that would suit their children.

They did. All 20 of Gold Star’s students are on government-funded scholarships, and the school has been so popular that it recently relocated to a renovated funeral home with three times the space.

Next spring promises to be another pivotal year for school choice legislation across America, and there’s no doubt that myths about school choice in rural areas will resurface. If they do, I hope lawmakers will recognize that choice can be a plus for rural America. In rural Florida it is.

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