Thursday, June 29, 2006

Choice-based reforms can help rural schools thrive

The following piece appeared in the State Journal Register and on Students First. For more information on Collin Hitt and the Illinois Policy Institute click here.

Choice-based reforms can help rural schools thrive


By Collin Hitt

State Journal Register

Rural schools outperform urban schools, on average. Their students read better, and perform better in math. Like small towns, rural schools are safer. But like small towns, once they fall into decline, they founder hopelessly.

For those schools, reform has been slow in coming in Illinois. Students and parents have felt the effects.

There are those contented to relegate school reform solely to a matter of monetary relief, whereby meaningful reforms have been supplanted by strategies of how to better angle for state resources. Schools are made to jockey for the same funds. Through this process, reform comes at the expense of other reforms, and it is failing rural Illinois.

Even in the districts where policy-makers have been particularly adept at bringing home education dollars, few positive results have followed. Pumping money into a struggling school is tantamount to subsidizing a failing factory. As relief it is temporary. As reform it is nominal. Choice-based reforms offer an alternative.

The word "voucher" is anathema to Illinois policy-makers. Utter the word and special interests will run you out of office faster than a quarter of rural eighth-graders can read a fourth-grade textbook. But vouchers or grants or "opportunity scholarships" - call them what you will - are needed everywhere, and immediately.

Most educators rail against the idea - "it would spell the end of our public school system." The fact is, educational grants have never spelled the end of public education, nor will they. Once parents are given the capability to genuinely direct their children's education, once schools are made to compete for their students, the public school system will respond to their needs.

Common to school choice opponents is the fear that, if given the opportunity, parents will send their children to private, parochial schools. Where possible, however, families are more frequently opting for charter schools - schools each somewhat unique in their approach, together offering a diverse array of programs.

Without the need to comply with rigid, statewide regulations, charter schools are able to focus their energies on an approach that is perhaps unique to their campus. They supply an education that responds to a local demand - a demand that may itself be unique to a given area; a demand that, due to statewide mandates, public schools are unable to meet.

Far from undermining local schools, "rural charter schools are providing an option to school consolidation by giving parents and educators the opportunity to keep their local school open," claims a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education.

Still, there are those who are wary of charter schools, and rightfully so. Gains in flexibility and responsiveness are made at the expense of oversight and accountability. In response to such concerns, one charter principal wrote, "charters are not in themselves a reform strategy; they are a blank slate. They are simply an opportunity to try something new ... To discuss their effectiveness as a group means about as much as trying to evaluate whether restaurants, as a group, are good. Some are wonderful, some dreadful, some have shut down and some probably ought to."

The strengths of rural communities are tailor-made for a charter approach. The willingness and propensity of rural Illinoisans to time and again involve themselves in endeavors where they can make a difference is undeniable, and charter schools give them the opportunity to do just that.

Furthermore, rural educators - educators everywhere - must embrace distance learning programs. Online learning and "virtual schools" are revolutionizing education. They allow schools to provide an education otherwise unavailable, due often to faculty limitations.

"Virtual schooling," when provided, has proven especially effective amongst students who take online advanced placement and college preparatory courses. There is a dearth of such options currently available in rural classrooms. And it's not that rural schools cannot take advantage of existing distance learning options; it's that they do not take advantage of these options. They're an inexpensive way to diversify and improve offerings within a given school.

However, teachers would be made to compete with online offerings, which makes districts unlikely candidates to initiate distance learning approaches. Florida established a statewide virtual school, and so should Illinois. In Florida, rural parents have enrolled their children in droves, part time and full time. To the extent that online education was being used to supplant classroom education, schools and school districts received less money. In response, dozens of Florida school districts have since established district-based virtual schools, to compete with the statewide school, and parents now have a wider array of high-quality options.

Rural schools, when faced to compete for students, will respond to the demands voiced by parents who chose to send their children elsewhere. Attempting to recapture dollars lost will force those public schools to raise the bar. And when they do, all students will benefit.

According to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute: As a legislative priority, rural education in Illinois ranks 43rd in the country. Yet, as we have seen, there exist choice-based reforms that can bring positive results to thousands of underserved Illinoisans … now. Each can be enacted immediately. Each can be enacted independently. Each deserves support within the General Assembly. And each would leave families and students far better served than under the failing status quo.

Collin Hitt is director of education policy and reform at the Springfield-based Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at

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