Texas Gov. Greg Abbott will call a special legislative session this fall in hopes of joining a national trend toward expanding families’ K-12 options via school choice policies. Opponents claim that school choice will “destroy” rural school districts, but the available evidence says otherwise.
Over the last 15 years, students in rural Texas have suffered large declines in reading and math achievement according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Between 2007 and 2022, rural Texas eighth-graders dropped approximately two grade levels in math and more than one grade level in reading.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, their math and reading scores were going down sharply.
A school-choice skeptic might claim that such policies would only exacerbate this terrible situation. But the experience of the state with the greatest degree of rural school choice belies this claim.
Arizona has both the greatest degree of K-12 choice overall and by far the most K-12 options for rural families. In 2022, many paid attention to Phoenix’s move to make its multiple-use education savings accounts—which allow families to use public education funds to pay for private school tuition, homeschool curriculum, online courses and more—available to all students. But fewer people are aware of the state’s extensive network of charter schools, which has been developing since 1994, when Arizona lawmakers adopted the nation’s most robust charter school law and passed a statewide district open-enrollment statute.
Nearly all Arizona school districts participate in open enrollment for student transfers, and thousands of rural Arizona students participate in private choice programs. If school choice skeptics were right, then public schools in rural Arizona should have been decimated. In reality, all of Arizona’s school districts operating in the year before the advent of choice are still in operation. Moreover, unlike rural schools in Texas, the national exams show unusually large academic gains for students in rural Arizona.
From 2007 until 2022, rural students nationwide dropped a combined 17 points in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading on the NAEP. In rural Texas, results were even worse: Students dropped a combined 38 points. Meanwhile, students in rural Arizona gained a combined eight points.
How does school choice contribute to academic success in rural areas? Arizona teachers can start their own schools, and Arizona families effectively decide which of these new schools thrive or close. Traditional district schools, faced with increased competition, must then improve to persuade local families to choose them.
Texas should demonstrate the same confidence in rural teachers and communities to create a vibrant set of schools. Texas school districts won’t go away, but Texas teachers and students would benefit.
In the last two years lawmakers in Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and West Virginia have passed major legislation expanding education choice. Texas families deserve the same opportunities to choose the learning environments that work best for their children.
The same healthy competition that spurred the "Texas Miracle” of the Lone Star State’s economy is exactly what the Texas education system needs. Rural Texas communities have nothing to fear and much to gain.
This piece originally appeared in MSN