Geography of school choice part III: Small towns and Friday night lights

In rural towns, schools are geographic landmarks, major employers and, most importantly, the hub of high school football, which may help explain school choice deserts in less-populated Western…

In rural towns, schools are geographic landmarks, major employers and, most importantly, the hub of high school football, which may help explain school choice deserts in less-populated Western states.

Education policy experts from across the nation agree there’s nothing quite like American football.

“It can’t be understated the impact of especially football,” said Paul Gessing, president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. 

“Schools are the centerpiece of the entire town,” added Lance Christensen, vice president of education policy at California Policy Center. “Friday night lights. It’s the football tradition.”

“Rural schools are centers of community,” continued Sarah Montalbano, education policy analyst for Alaska Policy Forum. “They’re the largest building in town for a lot of these small villages.” 

And in some rural towns, the public is able to more effectively hold the education system accountable, leading to greater satisfaction.

“If [parents] don’t like what’s happening with schools, they fire the school board and they get somebody else new in. And that happens on a pretty regular basis,” Christensen told The Lion. “As long as you can hold your public or government school to account, it doesn’t mean that people are necessarily going to leave the public school.” 

Christensen compared the rural and urban environments to “the small hometown business verses the big manufacturing plant.”

He says that kids in urban schools “are enduring a system that is not built for them; it’s built for the system.” 

In contrast, the high school in his small California town just built a new welding shop and agriculture department. 

“They’re appealing to the needs of the kids in this area,” he explained.  

Seven out of 15 of the least populated states are Western states with no school choice programs.

However, even rural school choice deserts, some may be sticking with the status quo out of apprehension rather than true satisfaction. 

“There [are] a lot of folks who are unsure of what they don’t know. They are much more the folks who know their high school principal, who know their school administrator, who go there on Friday nights for the football games,” Chris Cargill, president and CEO of the Idaho-based Mountain States Policy Center, told The Lion. “Because we have so many rural communities in the West, I think that’s part of the reason why there’s a little bit more caution when it comes to expanding school choice.” 

But what happened in Montana during the 2023 legislative session may have flipped the script for rural school choice.  

‘Rural communities know school choice is a good thing’  

Some education reformers had been fighting an uphill battle for decades to get charter schools in Montana. This year, they not only got charter schools but also education savings accounts (ESAs) for special needs students. 

“It was like a miracle,” Trish Schreiber, senior education fellow at Montana’s Frontier Institute, told The Lion. 

“There was more support for charter schools and more understanding of what charter schools are from the rural community in Montana,” she said of the recent success. “They know that school choice is a good thing.”

Even teachers, who often belong to the very unions fighting hard against education freedom, supported the reforms.

“Teachers really see the charter movement and the ESA movement as a liberating movement because it’s going to give them more options about where they can work and how things are done from the bottom up rather than from the top down,” Schreiber said. 

The most ardent opponents of choice in Montana were actually the superintendents, who Schreiber claims are acting out of ignorance.  

“It’s the superintendents statewide that are telling the legislators, ‘We don’t want this,’” she told The Lion. “But they don’t want it because again they’re operating off of the myths that they’ve been told year after year after year after year about these various school choice measures. And they’ve never bothered looking into it to see that [those claims are] not even true.” 

In fact, data from various polls reveal the overwhelming popularity of school choice across the nation, even in rural parts of states such as Texas and Oklahoma, where Friday night lights shine the brightest. 

(Read part I; part II;part III;part IV; part V; part VI).