The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, April 25, 2017 1:00 am

Vouchers can't make rural schools great again

Jill Long Thompson

Last week, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited the Van Wert Public Schools, a rural school district serving about 2,200 students.

According to reports of her visit, a number of protesters spoke out against her support of vouchers.

The demonstrators expressed concern that public schools had lost funding to charter and private schools over the past several years.

Public schools are a cornerstone of communities, and they are a very important component of the rural infrastructure.

As a candidate, Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to strengthen our nation's infrastructure.

Rural voters, believing he would make their communities great again, overwhelmingly supported him.

But his policies actually undermine the infrastructure of small towns and rural counties.

For example, he and DeVos are working to expand education voucher programs across the country, which would be very damaging to the rural economy.

For rural communities, in particular, voucher programs create a business model that simply will not work. Running a rural school is very challenging because the resources are always limited, and oftentimes scarce.

Vouchers encourage the creation of small private schools. But, we don't need more schools in rural communities; we need more resources to strengthen the schools we have. Increasing the number of schools means increasing the overhead, which is why vouchers dilute resources even further.

A school voucher program is the education policy equivalent of a county highway program that would give residents money to build little private roads anywhere they want.

That would not only be costly and inefficient; it would not serve the community's transportation needs.

One must look no further than our own state, with its aggressive voucher program, to see the problems it causes for small rural school systems.

Since 2011, Indiana has shifted $520 million into the state voucher program.

Unfortunately, many of the schools receiving the vouchers have not performed as well as the public schools that lost funding because of the vouchers.

A voucher program is not the solution to the challenges facing public education.

According to the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, “Studies of the federally funded (Washington, D.C.) voucher program found that there was no conclusive evidence that vouchers affected student achievement. In fact, children who were given the school voucher performed no better in math and reading than the children who weren't given vouchers.”

Additionally, “Similar studies of the longest-running school voucher program in the country in Milwaukee actually found that public school students outperformed voucher students at every grade level on the statewide reading and math tests.”

My husband and I are products of rural public schools. We live on a farm in the same district where my husband completed his elementary and high school education, and where he and his father both served on the local school board.

I know firsthand what the public school means to a rural community. Our school is not just a place to educate our children, but also a vehicle for bringing people together. Our local school is a big part of our identity.

I can think of nothing more important to the rural infrastructure than schools. President Trump's voucher policies would cause irreparable harm to communities across rural America.

Jill Long Thompson is a former member of Congress from Indiana. She is also a former USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development. She is a visiting associate professor at the Kelley School of Business and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington.

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