“All children in South Carolina should have access to the highest quality education possible.” So declared Gov. Henry McMaster in recently proclaiming School Choice Week in South Carolina.
To that end, the South Carolina legislature is currently considering a proposal to give families greater freedom to choose learning environments that align with their values and meet their children’s individual learning needs.
The proposal would create education savings accounts (ESAs), letting families access about $6,000 in state funds to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online courses, special needs therapy and numerous other educational expenses. Ten states have already adopted ESA policies, including five in the last two years.
It’s not hard to understand why.
The pandemic—and especially district schools’ response to it—awakened parents to the need for education choice. Unnecessarily long school shutdowns, mask mandates and concerns over the politicization of the classroom have propelled public support for education choice policies, like ESAs, to all-time highs. A recent poll of likely voters in South Carolina, conducted by the South Carolina Policy Council, found six in 10 supported the ESA proposal. Support among African American voters was even higher, at 68%.
But not everyone is on board. The teachers’ unions and their allies are doing everything they can to block families from accessing alternatives to the district school system.
In an effort to peel away votes from South Carolina legislators representing rural areas, ESA opponents are arguing that choice policies either don’t benefit rural areas or are harmful to rural district schools.
For example, state Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, argues that students in rural areas can’t benefit from the ESA proposal because they supposedly lack private options. “What real option are we giving them? Are we gonna let Johnny in Bamberg drive to Richland County?” he asked recently, “Give me a break.”
Meanwhile, Carol Corbett Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, frets that education choice policies would supposedly create a “death spiral” for district schools, “especially in rural areas” because when “kids leave the system, they leave behind all kinds of stranded costs.”
These two claims—that there are no schooling options in rural areas and that rural schools are imperiled because so many students will leave for those options—are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be true, but they can both be—and indeed are—false.
First, as detailed in a new Heritage Foundation report, families in rural areas have access to more education options than ever before.
About seven in 10 rural families nationwide live within 10 miles of a private elementary school. Rural areas are also seeing the rise of microschools, a modern reimagining of the one-room schoolhouse.
Microschool networks like Acton Academy, Adamo Education, Great Hearts, Kai Pods and Prenda are teaching students in small groups, sometimes operating out of homes or church basements. Their approaches vary greatly—ranging from classical to Montessori—but all offer greater flexibility and individualized attention than the traditional classroom environment.
Additionally, high-quality virtual schools are available to anyone with a decent Internet connection—also increasingly available in rural America. A 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 72% of rural Americans said they have a broadband Internet connection at home, up 19 percentage points since 2016.
Fears that the wide availability of education options would harm rural schools are entirely unfounded. Arizona, for example, has consistently ranked among the top states for education freedom and choice over the past two decades. More students exercise their school choice options in Arizona than in any other state. If choice policies harmed district schools, then Arizona’s rural schools would be falling apart.
In fact, Arizona’s rural schools are improving much more than the national average. From 2007 to 2019, Arizona rural students’ fourth and eighth-grade reading and math scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress increased by a combined 21 points, while scores in rural schools nationally decreased by two points. On the most recent (post-pandemic) NAEP, Arizona’s rural students were still up a combined eight points, while rural students nationally dropped 17 points from 2007.
Education choice policies like tax-credit scholarships and ESAs expand educational opportunity for rural families while spurring rural district schools to improve their performance.
By embracing education choice policies, South Carolina lawmakers can ensure that all children have access to the learning environment that best meets their individual needs and helps them to achieve their full God-given potential.
This piece originally appeared in The Times and Democrat