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No School, No Town: School Vouchers Threaten Rural Communities

May 15, 2023

The flip side of school vouchers in the name of “choice” is divestment in community public schools.

No matter how pro-voucher advocates may try to justify, shape, disguise, or rebrand it, the bottom line is that money that would otherwise be used to fund a student in a community, public-school classroom is either being reduced or completely removed from that community school budget.

And the smaller the community– the smaller the district or the school– the more devastating that school funding loss will be to both school and, ultimately, to the community.

School vouchers in rural areas could literally be the economic undoing of the community since the school system may well be the chief source of employment for the locale.

What is happening with the school voucher push upon rural communities is nothing new when it comes to how corporate-style education reform works. It all comes down to money– often in the form of campaign financing and election funding. Simply put: To get the desired school-voucher bill outcome, buy a legislator. Buy a school board member. Buy a governor.

Buy many legislators, Buy a school-board majority. Buy many governors.

What will inevitably get lost in all of this pro-voucher purchasing is the small rural town that depends upon its public schools as the heart of community social health and economic survival.

In their piece, “Vouchers Don’t Work in Rural Areas,” the National Coalition for Public Education notes the important role public schools play in community health:

Another major hurdle in bringing vouchers to rural communities is that the public schools are more than just places for children to learn: they serve a critical social and economic function by serving as the primary employer of small communities, offering healthcare for children and adults alike and frequently offering food pantries, breakfast or lunch programs and night classes. A decision by a rural family to withdraw a child from the public school and enroll them elsewhere doesn’t mean that the family disconnects from the school—it simply means that the school has fewer resources to provide the non-educational benefits critical for community members.


In the NBC News article, “Inside the Rural Texas Resistance to the GOP’s Private School Choice Plan,” Robert Lee, Texas, superintendent Aaron Hood offers the above sentiment in starker terms:

Hood, whose father was superintendent of Robert Lee before he took the job 17 years ago, is worried about what will happen to his hometown if too much of the school’s funding is redirected to religious schools that aren’t required to educate all children and into the college savings accounts of homeschooled children.

He’s seen it happen in other rural Texas communities. At some point, as populations dwindle, the budget math doesn’t add up anymore, and rural schools are forced to consolidate with adjacent districts — or worse.

“If the school goes down,” Hood said, “the town goes down with it.”

In the case of school voucher expansion in Texas, the state senate seat representing Robert Lee, TX, had been held by a longtime opponent of school vouchers. However, the GOP megadonor money was targeted on that representative, Kel Seliger, who told NBC News in 2023, “They (“two ultraconservative political action committees”) set out to make an example of me,” pouring money into the campaign of challenger Kevin Sparks:

Ahead of what would have been Seliger’s 2022 re-election campaign, several far-right donors threw their support behind his latest primary challenger, Kevin Sparks, a Midland oilman who’d served on the board of the pro-voucher Texas Public Policy Foundation. Sparks also sits on the board of trustees at Midland Classical Academy, a private Christian school founded by Dunn, whose family donated $200,000 to Sparks’ campaign. Later, Trump jumped into the race, endorsing Sparks and calling Seliger a RINO — Republican in Name Only.

NBC News reports that the pressure drove Seliger to retire:

After two decades in the Legislature — facing an uphill re-election battle and having concluded that the Texas Republican Party had “really gone off the rails” — Seliger decided to retire.

“Now was a good time to leave,” he said, “because I could leave on my own terms.”

And so, money bought voucher-friendly Ken Sparks as Seliger’s successor.

And that is how it works in corporate-driven education reform: Find a guy to buy, and then, buy.

The purchase doesn’t always work, or, at least, not immediately. School voucher opponent Seliger held his seat for 20 years, a noble effort.

Furthermore, as of this writing, Texas governor Greg Abbott does not yet have both chambers on board for his private school vouchers. On May 15, 2023, the Houston Chronicle reports that Abbott is threatening a special session for school vouchers. Even though in April 2023, the Texas senate passed SB 8, a school voucher bill in line with Abbott’s wishes, the Texas house concurrently voted to block school voucher funding. The Chronicle notes that SB 8 “has been stalled in the House due to a lack of support.”


When a legislative vote for school vouchers fails, one should consider that such failure is due at least in part to rural resistance to the idea. Consider the 2022 Oklahoma legislature’s failed effort at passing a school voucher bill showcased by the state’s governor and senate leader, as reported by the Brookings Institute in November 2022:

Oklahoma is a deep-red state. … The state’s governor, both U.S. senators, and all five U.S. House members are Republicans. And the GOP holds about 80% of the seats in both chambers of the state legislature. So, when Governor Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma Senate leader Greg Treat declared a statewide school voucher bill a major priority for the 2022 legislative session, it might have seemed that its enactment would be a foregone conclusion. But when the legislature adjourned at the end of May, the voucher bill had failed by a vote of 24-22 in the Oklahoma Senate—and hadn’t even been called up for a vote in the Oklahoma House.

How could this happen? …

Many rural Oklahoma school districts struggle financially. In this case, rural lawmakers were concerned that instituting a statewide voucher program would further stress the finances of their broadly popular public schools. Beyond that, there just aren’t that many educational options in rural parts of the state, which limits the appeal of voucher legislation to families in those areas.

In February 2023, The Oklahoman notes that school vouchers once again hit a legislative “dead end.” In its place was a private-school tax credit bill that also included a $2,500 raise for teachers as well as “an extra $300 million into public-school funding to support additional school staff raises and classroom needs” and “…put another $50 million into Redbud grants for school facilities.” as the February 22, 2023 Oklahoman reports.

Private-school tax credits are “back-door” school voucher bills in that the tax revenue is not collected in the first place, thereby reducing the total tax revenue available for funding public infrastructure, including schools. However, it seems that in committing additional, specific dollar amounts towards teacher and staff salaries as well as the classroom supplies and facilities, the Oklahoma legislature was able to convince voucher-holdout legislators that the results of this bill would not decimate the fiscal stability of public schools in rural communities.


On March 07, 2023, the Arkansas senate passed a 145-page “education overhaul” bill that includes among its many components and programs school vouchers. The massive, multifaceted bill passed the Arkansas house on March 02, 2023, and Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the bill into law the next day.

From US News and World Report:

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas lawmakers on Tuesday approved a education overhaul that creates a new school voucher program, handing a major policy win to Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders that critics said could threaten support for public schools.

The Republican-held Senate voted 26-8 to send to Sanders the 145-page bill, which also raises minimum teacher salaries and puts new restrictions on classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity. …

Over three years, the plan will phase in an “education freedom account” to pay for private and home schooling costs equal to 90% of the state’s per-student funding for public schools, which is currently $7,413. It’s part of a renewed push for such voucher programs following the COVID-19 pandemic that’s been fueled in part by fights over school curriculum. …

The overhaul also would raise minimum teacher salaries by 39% to $50,000 a year following calls by Democrats and Republicans over the past several months to raise starting pay from one of the lowest rates in the country.

The school voucher component of the bill includes some interesting terms. A student may be denied participation in the program. A student may be removed from the program “due to his or her failure to demonstrate academic achievement or academic growth.” Beginning with the 2024-25 school year, parents will have some debit-card, electronic-funds-transfer or other similar means of paying the private school directly in quarterly payments.

The school vouchers are to be phased in, with the program open to “any resident of this state (Arkansas) who is eligible to enroll in a public elementary or secondary school.”

One of the concerns about the school voucher component of the bill is the potential, disproportionate impact of funds lost felt by smaller districts. From the Arkansas Advocate:

Public schools receive state funding on a per-student basis, so a public school would lose funds if students transfer to a private school. The funding loss disproportionately affects  smaller schools, [Arkansas Rural Ed Association executive director Dennis] Copeland said.“Ten students to a small school is huge. Compared to a big school, it wouldn’t faze them at all,” he said. “But in a smaller school that’s got 350 students and you lose 10, that’s $75,000 from your budget right there. Then you have to start making cuts … laying off teachers and staff and all those kind of things, which is something that you don’t want to ever have to do.”

“If I was a smaller school than what we were, I’d be shaking in the boots right now, especially if I had a school that had an F,” [Eureka Springs School District superintendent Bryan] Pruitt said. …

If approved, the proposed Education Freedom Account would be offered to the state’s most “at-risk” students in the first year before expanding to all families within three years, Sanders said.

“Looking at it, I’m thinking, Okay, this is a way that they’re going to close some schools,” Pruitt said. …

The loss of a school district can be devastating for a community, Copeland said.

“Those communities that their school district was their prime employer, was their prime pride … when that school district was consolidated, that town and that community kind of dried up as far as what the end result was,” he said. “That’s very unfortunate, and we don’t want that to happen anymore,” Copeland said.

In Arkansas, a small district with declining enrollment or graded “with a “D” or “F”-rating or in need of Level 5 – Intensive Support” can now choose to become a “transformation campus”— which means that rather than consolidate with another district (which may not be geographically feasible), the district in question may opt to have another entity oversee it– including “the governing body of an open-enrollment charter school; or another entity, as approved by the State Board of Education.”

Basically, this “transformation campus” idea is a state-takeover makeover.

The state will provide “incentives” specifically for charter operators to assume control over these smaller districts: “The Division of Elementary and Secondary Education shall seek to encourage transformation charter operators to enter into contracts with eligible public school districts,” including awarding an “alternate letter grade” that holds no consequences for the operator for two years.

And that’s where the law stops. No word about what will happen after Year Three when the first school grade of consequence is connected to the charter operator and the miracle “transformation” does not pan out. I suppose it is possible for another entity to give it a try, allowing the small district to survive, passed along from operator to operator in foster-care fashion, so to speak– hardly a solution for nurturing community economic stability.

Indeed, unless the law is further clarified to note otherwise, it is also possible for “transformation” charter operators to fire local teachers and administrators and bring in their own rotating, temporary teachers and administrators, which also threatens community stability.

Then again, it is the rare state legislature that makes community stability a non-negotiable when considering education policy, including grading schools and instituting school choice.

“Lose Your School, Lose Your Town.”

It is important for the public– especially the small-town public– to understand that we must stand up for our communities and be vigilant to watch for legislative efforts to redirect funding from community schools into private hands. On May 12, 2023, the National Education Association (NEA) published a piece, “‘Lose Your School, Lose Your Town’: Educators in Rural States Mobilize Against School Vouchers.” The article includes the following three “key takeaways”:

  • The push to establish or expand private school vouchers has accelerated in 2023.
  • Increasingly, these proposals have stripped income limits, allowing even affluent families to apply for taxpayer-funded private school tuition.
  • Despite the political headwinds in many states, educators and their unions have aligned with rural lawmakers to defeat these bills.

The bills are there, and despite being generally unpopular with the public, school vouchers in what the NEA article calls a “resurgence,” in part due to rebranding efforts:

Voucher proponents have also been quite successful in rebranding and repackaging a widely unpopular idea– and it is benefiting the wealthy. 

“Once the term ‘school voucher’ began to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths,” explains Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), “They started calling them something else.” 

Straightforward voucher proposals soon became education savings accounts (ESA) and tuition tax credits. …

“State voucher tax credits are among the most significant tools eroding the public education system and propping up private schools,” says Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). 

According to a recent ITEP analysis of tax credits in three states, families with incomes of over $200,000 are overwhelmingly the ones using these credits, which enable them to opt out of paying tax to public coffers. 

And here it is, the connection between the tax-credit voucher user and rural fiscal strain:

“These voucher schemes are just welfare programs for wealthy parents in metropolitan areas, and they are killing rural schools,” says Erika Wright, a public school parent and founder of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition. “Wealthier families are asking lower income rural Oklahomans to foot the bill to send their kids to private schools. They’re coming behind our back to suck funding out of our community schools that are already underfunded.”

“Back-door”-styled school vouchers like “tax credits” lower the overall tax revenue available for public entities, including schools.

Fewer tax dollars coming in means fewer tax dollars available for infrastructure that is already fiscally fragile– like rural-community infrastructure.

In a democracy, voice is important. It is one thing for school vouchers to come to my school district of 270,000 residents. It is quite another for a community of 1,000.

I am hardly likely to lose my Louisiana school from private school vouchers, and I certainly won’t lose my town.

However, death-by-voucher is a very real, existential threat for America’s rural communities. And so, it is in the whole of America’s best interest to take a stand in support of our rural neighbors and their community public schools.


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One Comment
  1. mrfitzfinkle permalink

    I am writing a novel about teaching and school reform, and planned to include this very scenario in it. I wondered if it would be believable. I’m sad to hear it is – but it makes finishing the novel even more urgent. Thanks for posting this piece!

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