Anyone who grew up away from big cities knows that limited options are a fact of life, whether it’s restaurants, shops, or even schools. “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit”—a phrase from a popular children’s book—is an acquired attitude if you live in a rural area.
But just up the road from my hometown in central Kansas, many parents and students are throwing a fit after two school districts rolled out a new, web-based curriculum from Silicon Valley. The New York Times recently profiled the Kansas towns of McPherson and Wellington and their school districts’ adoption of Summit Learning, a personalized learning platform where students go at their own pace on their computers and teachers act more like mentors.
While personalized learning has been embraced in some parts of the country as a great innovation, the reception in Kansas has been mixed—some love it, but some hate it enough that they are looking for other options for their kids. Leaving aside the merits of the program, the problem is not every student is well-suited to this method of learning, and not every parent is happy with their child spending most of the day in front of a computer screen. Unfortunately, alternatives in rural areas are scarce or unaffordable whether you are in Kansas or Missouri.
Private school tuition is expensive, and some do not have the time or money to homeschool. Picking up and moving to a new school district is not so simple either; unlike urban or suburban areas where a few miles in any direction will land you in a new district, rural areas are spotted with towns like islands in a sea of crops and pastures. Not to mention that for those that farm, moving is completely off the table. Interdistrict transfers can help, but the next nearest school may not be close enough to commute to and from every day.
Families living in rural areas should not have to accept limited opportunities for their children’s education. Education savings accounts (ESAs) could help families homeschool or enroll in a private school that’s just five miles away instead of transferring to another traditional public school 20 miles away. Charter schools can also provide another option if parents aren’t satisfied with what’s going on in their home district.
We should recognize that students, no matter where they live, have different needs and interests. We can also trust parents to make sound judgments about what kind of approach is best for their own kids. Rather than just accepting whatever the local school boards decides, parents and students from rural areas are right to throw a fit when it comes to accessing more opportunities in education.