Talking about school choice in Missouri often feels hopeless. A common attack on school choice efforts in Missouri is “Most of our schools are rural and school choice doesn’t work in rural areas.” The first half of that statement is true. Of the 518 school districts in Missouri, 367 (over 70 percent) are considered rural by the U.S. Department of Education. And 130 of those are considered “rural remote,” meaning that the district is more than 25 miles from an urbanized area.
In these districts, there is only one school that serves each grade. The schools also serve as community centers, gyms, and local concert venues. The students may travel long distances on the bus each day. The superintendent probably knows every student and their family. These districts, I’m told, don’t need charter schools or private school choice. For the students in these schools, the same system and curriculum that served their parents and grandparents is fine.
But is it? The world is changing very quickly. Today’s high school graduates need sophisticated skills just to pursue a trade or a career in agriculture. College coursework requires a solid foundation in English and math. Yet many rural high schools don’t offer upper-level coursework in either.
Choice takes many forms for those who are open to it. In Texas, for example, three remote rural districts have decided to collaborate and form a “Rural Schools Innovation Zone.” Like rural districts in Missouri, the superintendents in these districts don’t want to hear more about consolidation. Rather, they want to give their students the best chance at success. The schools in the zone will share resources and ideas, and students in the zone will have access to any of the pathway programs offered by the three districts, all while remaining separate and distinct school districts. These school districts are innovating by acknowledging the benefit of choices that go beyond what each of the districts offers individually. And, fortunately, they have the support of their school boards.
If we consider the past to be prologue, then we can find confidence that a statement like “That won’t work here” will eventually motivate those who don’t believe it to prove it wrong. In Missouri, that’s going to require finding communities that are open to innovation. I know they’re out there.