As the most northeastern town in the United States., Madawaska, Maine, also has the unique status of being one of the “four corners” of the nation. Situated in Aroostook County on the St. Johns River that forms part of the U.S.-Canadian border, Madawaska’s residents are deeply proud of their Acadian roots (French is the first language for many), which gives this small town a cultural affinity with its neighbors to the north. In fact, the nearest populous area is Quebec City, about 200 miles southwest. The closest U.S. city is Bangor, about the same distance directly south.

“We’re pretty far up here,” says Gisele Dionne, superintendent of Madawaska public schools. “I look out my window and see the mountains of Canada.”

The district serves about 440 students (30 of which come from neighboring Grand Isle) in a preK-6 elementary school and a 7-12 middle/high school. The two schools are bedrocks of the community, resilient even as financial challenges have mounted over the past decade.

“Economically, we’re a one–horse town,” says Dionne, a former high school chemistry teacher. “We’re dependent on our paper mill. As many mills across the state have closed, ours went through a rough patch as well, but we’ve stabilized.”

The tiny district’s finances were further strained when a 2012 tax abatement for the mill resulted in a significant loss in revenue, delivering a blow to local services, including public schools. Like countless rural communities, Madawaska’s dwindling tax base (according to the 2010 Census, the town’s population stood at around 4,000 but has likely declined since then) has made scarce local dollars even harder to find. The town’s student population has fallen from around 720 to its current level of 430. Over the past decade, the percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced lunch has dramatically increased to more than 50 percent, and the number of students with special needs has increased from 15% to 25%.

The arduous process of getting a school budget approved has been the bane of previous superintendents, one of the reasons why Dionne—when she took the job in 2015—was the 15th superintendent in a dozen years.

Still, “support of our public schools remains very strong,” says Dionne.  “We have a lot of pride in our schools and our students.”

This may be mystifying for private school voucher and charter school advocates to hear. That communities are profoundly dissatisfied with public schools is one of the myths used to champion policies that are wrapped in euphemisms such as “choice” and “competition” but have, where they have taken hold, often exacerbated the financial plight of rural schools.

State funding for public education has not come close to returning to pre-recession levels, and the Trump administration is determined to impose deeps cuts at the federal level to help pay for its school privatization agenda.

“If more money is cut, we are going to suffer tremendously,” says Bonny Plourde-Tingley, a teacher at Madawaska Elementary School and president of the Madawaska Education Association. “We’re back on our feet, but we can’t take too many other hits.”

Idaho ranks last in the nation in per-pupil spending. Jolene Dockstader teaches in Jerome, where 70 percent of the students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch and the burgeoning Latino population is closing in on 50 percent. She is incredulous at the preoccupation with policies that have little to offer her school and community, and a lot to take away.

“We struggle every day,” she says. “So why are these people talking about school vouchers or charter schools? Why do they think that communities like ours can afford to pay for an alternative school system?”

rural schools statistics

The Crisis Facing Rural Schools

Rural voices have always been muted in national conversations, says Doris Williams, senior fellow at the Rural School and Community Trust (RSCT).

“The voices across rural America are so scattered that it’s hard to elevate [them] above the din,” Williams explains, particularly as the education debate has long been preoccupied with the challenges and interests of urban, and to a lesser extent suburban, schools.

But as the 2017 RSCT report “Rural Matters” points out, the 9 million rural students in the United States exceed the enrollments of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the next 75 largest school districts combined.

Doris Williams rural schools

Doris Williams (photo courtesy of the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory)

“You’re talking about a huge swath of schools, roughly 25 percent of all schools across the United States and almost 20 percent of all our students,” says Williams.  “Many are students of color and about half are are low-income.”

The challenges facing rural schools are staggering—concentrated poverty, inadequate access to health care services, early childhood education and after-school programs, ballooning class size, high transportation costs, teacher shortages, and lack of broadband access.

“It’s important to understand that not all ‘rural’ is the same,” says Williams. Specific challenges can differ in scope and circumstances. The extreme poverty clustered in Appalachia, for example, is seen in few other parts of the country. The recent four-year drought in California pummeled the expansive Central Valley—with high numbers of low-income, English Language Learners in the schools—resulting in an exodus of families and a huge loss of revenue for schools. Less than 1 percent of rural students in 13 states are ELL. That figure exceeds 20 percent in three states.

The challenges facing rural schools are staggering—concentrated poverty, inadequate access to health care services, early childhood education and after-school programs, ballooning class size, high transportation costs, teacher shortages, and lack of broadband access.

Still, for the vast majority of rural districts, generating adequate funding and providing quality education—and even basic needs—to most of their students is a persistent and often grinding task.

Help from Washington, D.C., has hit a roadblock. NEA has called on Congress to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, (SRS) which provides critical assistance to rural districts whose funding depends largely on federal timber sales, which have declined precipitously in recent years. Passed in 2000, the SRS supports 4,000 school districts in 41 states. The law expired in 2016 and has not been renewed.

In May, the Trump administration unveiled a budget proposal that NEA President Lily Eskelsen García called a “wrecking ball” aimed at the nation’s public schools. The proposal slashed the federal investment in public education programs by a whopping 13.6 percent, many of them benefiting the nation’s most economically disadvantaged students.

What would these massive cuts pay for? Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ pet project – an ambitious $20 billion initiative to expand private school vouchers nationwide.  Congress, at least for now, has not approved the funding for this program, but no one expects DeVos to retreat from pushing this agenda.

Once They Close, They’re Not Coming Back

Jerome Middle School in Idaho, where Jolene Dockstader teaches 7th grade English Language Arts, is a Title I school. While the federal government provides only a relatively small percentage of K-12 education funding, when state and local funding avenues grow even narrower, it can make a significant difference. The prospect of Title I funding and other federal programs being put in the crosshairs, she says, is alarming.

“Our students come to us undereducated. They depend on these extra services and programs. These programs also help keep class sizes down and help pay for teacher aides,” says Dockstader.

Over the course of her career in Madawaskal, Bonny Plourde-Tingley has watched as program after program—music and arts, language immersion classes, physical education—get disassembled by state and local budget cuts—not to mention the reduction in cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians and administrative staff.

Bonny Plourde-Tingley, left, teacher at Madawaska Elementary School, with Gisele Dionne, superintendent of Madawaska public schools. (photo: Becky Shea)

“We won’t be able to give our most disadvantaged students what they need. These are the kids who come to school hungry,” says Plourde-Tingley. “These are the kids that need a place to be right after school. A few years ago, we lost our after-school computer club that really helped those students who don’t have these tools at home.”

Rural schools look to levies or bonds to wring out extra funding—usually an acrimonious and often divisive process, as local tax bases continue to shrink. These are, more often than not, merely band-aid solutions.

On a larger scale, rural districts are often the key plaintiffs in lawsuits challenging state school financing systems that clearly do not provide constitutionally required funding for economically disadvantaged students.

These actions have notched up some major victories. In 2014, the State Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled that the state was failing to provide the poorest districts—known as the state’s “corridor of shame”—with enough funding to meet the constitutional standard of a “minimally adequate education.” How, and if, the ruling results in concrete improvements in funding for the state’s rural schools remains to be seen.

In March, the Kansas Supreme Court also found that the state was failing to meet these constitutional requirements and ordered lawmakers to devise a new funding formula to increase government spending on the state’s public education system.

This move to explore more equitable and permanent school funding formulas at both the state and local level has reached a level of urgency, as looming budget cuts from Washington threaten to push struggling districts to the breaking point.

“This is really going to be felt in the most disadvantaged communities. If more dollars dry up to pay for vouchers and charter schools, these communities will be devastated.”

Many rural schools, previously hanging by a thread, will inevitably face the prospect of having their doors closed.

“And when these schools close, they’re not coming back,” Williams says. “They are so often the centers of these communities, so when you get rid of the school, you’ve shut down the only institution that people identify with.”

Why “Competition” Doesn’t Serve Students in Rural Communities

rural schools

There are roughly 9 million rural students nationwide. One-quarter are students of color and about half are from low-income families.

In its 2017 policy statement on charter schools, NEA singled out the dismal record of virtual or online charter schools, stating that they “cannot, by their nature, provide students with a well-rounded, complete educational experience, including optimal kinesthetic, physical, social and emotional development.”

Cyber-charters, an enormously lucrative sector, have a notoriously poor record of providing any type of quality education to students. Still, the schools have been draining funds from rural districts, and have been quickly endorsed by DeVos as the option for rural students who may not have access to private institutions or brick-and-mortar charter schools.

In 2013, three students in Madawaska signed up for Maine Connection Academy, along with Maine Virtual Academy, one of two virtual charter schools in the state, both managed by for-profit companies.

“It was only three students, but in a district like ours, you feel that loss. Every student counts,” says Giselle Dionne. “What made it worse is that we had to pay for the tuition out of our general budget.”

Only one of those students graduated – hardly surprising given both schools’ graduation rate is far below the state average—67 percent for Connections Academy and a miserable 37 percent for Virtual Academy.

Online charters have become a formidable presence in rural districts in Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School enrolls almost 12,000 students. If recent data is any predictor, only half will graduate in four years.

The cyber-charter sector in Pennsylvania was one of 17 analyzed in 2015 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Overall, the reported academic gains of students enrolled in these schools were so miniscule, says Margaret Raymond, executive director of CREDO, it was “literally as though the student did not go to school for the entire year.”

While not a major force in most rural districts, brick-and-mortar charter schools—far more expensive to operate—can create turmoil in a small district, especially one that sets itself up as a competitor to the community’s public schools. The town of Gooding, Idaho, one of the poorest districts in the state, discovered this the hard way when the Idaho Public Charter School Commission gave the greenlight to North Oak Academy in 2006, promising to deliver a “patriotic” education.

Private school vouchers are a uniformly unpopular idea that could decimate the school system of a sparsely-populated district.

“It was right before the economy crashed,” recalls Representative Sally Toone, a retired public school teacher in Gooding and former president of the Gooding Education Association, who was elected to the Idaho state legislature in 2016. “We had very little money, Having a charter school with no accountability and no boundaries was the last thing we needed.”

But North Valley Academy, flush with a three-year start-up grant, quickly bled students and teachers away from Gooding’s three public schools, leaving them teetering as enrollments quickly dropped by 10 percent in the first year.

Within a few years, however, North Valley was under scrutiny for not meeting state standards in reading and math and struggling to live up to promises it made to teachers and students after it drained its start-up cash.  The community found itself divided. “It got pretty ugly,” recalls Toone. “The charter school launched a pretty nasty PR campaign.”

To ward off the elimination of music and athletic programs caused in large part by the exodus to North Valley, Gooding voters scrambled to pass a property tax levy to raise $325,000 for the district.

The situation has stabilized in recent years, Toone says “but I don’t think they thought through what the ramifications would be for a small district like ours.”

Race to the Bottom

While charter schools have expanded dramatically across the nation, private school vouchers haven’t gained the same traction—yet. Private school vouchers are a uniformly unpopular idea that could decimate the school system of a sparsely-populated district.

But there they are – the marquee item on Betsy DeVos’ “school choice” agenda.

It doesn’t matter how their proponents try to disguise themeducation savings accounts, tuition tax credits, opportunity scholarships—vouchers are destructive and misguided schemes that use taxpayer dollars to “experiment with our children’s education without any evidence of real, lasting positive results,” says NEA President Eskelsen García. Recent evaluations of voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio found that students attending private schools on a voucher scored worse than their public school counterparts on reading and math assessments.

Since 2011, Indiana has shifted $520 million to their school voucher program, the largest in the nation and a growing number of voucher users in the state are from middle-class families, with growth the strongest among suburban families. Meanwhile, in a state with the 6th highest population of rural students in the country, declining enrollments and less funding plague Indiana’s rural school districts.

Wyoming currently doesn’t have a voucher program. In 2107, the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank in Washington D.C., analyzed the potential ramifications if one came to the Hot Springs County School District #1 in Thermopolis. A private school, tempted by a new funding stream, could conceivably open somewhere along the 2,000 square miles that cover the county.

The CAP report concluded that the impact on the school system would be felt immediately as reduced funding would balloon class sizes, eliminate key academic programs and student supports. And the private school would probably be vexed by some of the same challenges facing rural schools, including teacher recruitment and retention.

The outcome?  “A race to the bottom, with two sets of schools struggling to provide a high-quality education to children who badly need it,” concluded the report.

Yet, faced with the overwhelming evidence of potential devastation vouchers and funding cuts would bring to our most disadvantaged students, the proponents of school privatization, blinders firmly in place, continue to push their agenda.

“Everybody talks about wanting to provide quality education for all our students,” says Doris Williams. “That may be the language but that is not the goal of the people pushing these policies. It’s almost an intentional strategy to establish a caste system in this country. Do they really not know what this is going to look like 10, 20 years down the road?”

School Voucher Revolt in Texas

Many might assume that deep-red Texas would be among the first states in the nation to follow Betsy DeVos’ lead on private school vouchers.

But the idea of funneling scarce taxpayer dollars away from public schools to pay for private school tuition has a way of bridging political divides.

In May, a bipartisan majority in the Texas House of Representatives stood up and rejected a bill, passed earlier in the State Senate, that would have brought so-called “education savings accounts” and “tax credit scholarships” (two examples of how proponents have rebranded vouchers) to the state’s school system. The stunning defeat of the proposal—enthusiastically-supported by Gov. Greg Abbot and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick—was an emphatic reminder that the opposition to redirecting scarce public funds away from vulnerable schools to pay for private school tuition can cut across political lines.

Texas actually has a long record of turning away these schemes. Noel Candelaria, president of the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA), says lawmakers from rural districts understand the role schools play in their communities and the constant financial pressure they operate under on a daily basis. Per-student spending in Texas is already $2,555 less than the national average and rural districts have been hit hard by cuts in critical programs.

“Many rural Republicans in the House oppose vouchers because they value their public schools. In many rural communities, local schools are the anchor,” Candelaria explains. “Why should a rural legislator vote to take tax dollars from his or her local schools to send to private schools in faraway cities? Remember, in a state as large as Texas, cities can be hundreds of miles from a rural legislator’s district.”

According to an analysis by the Austin American-Statesman, of the 459 rural districts in Texas, private schools are located in only six.

Key to the victory against the voucher bill was the alliance between enough legislators from rural and suburban districts, and the overwhelming opposition from those representing inner city neighborhoods. TSTA is part of the Coalition for Public Schools, an active anti-voucher organization that, in addition to education groups, includes ministers, parents, and labor activists.

Candelaria says Texas educators have to remain vigilant. Voucher proponents are determined and are flush with cash and powerful friends.

“We believe opposition in the House remains strong, although we are not taking anything for granted.”