How to Garner Rural Republican Support of School Choice

“Hold harmless” provisions would help ease concerns of small districts
A bus drives down a rural road.
A study found nearly 7-in-10 rural families have access to one or more private schools within 10 miles of their home.

With RealClear Opinion research finding that 82% of Republican voters now favor school choice policies such as vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax-credit scholarships, school choice legislation in Republican-dominated state legislatures seems like it should have an easy path to the governor’s desk. But this wasn’t the case in 2022 , when red states such as Georgia, Iowa, and Utah failed to usher school choice bills across the finish line.

In Oklahoma, where House Republicans outnumbered Democrats 82-19 during the 2022 session, Republican House Speaker Charles McCall refused to give a hearing to a school choice bill backed by both the state’s governor and Senate leader. According to McCall: “I’m a rural Oklahoman. We see things through the lens of our individual districts.”

While rural Republican opposition to school choice is long-simmering, it’s more apparent now that funding families instead of systems is enshrined in the GOP’s platform and quickly becoming a litmus-test issue for right-leaning voters. Rural Republican policymakers are the main reason Texas, a reliably red state, is in the minority of states that don’t have private-school choice programs on the books despite years of legislative efforts to change that.

Although this rural voting bloc has proved to be a roadblock for school choice advocates, creative approaches to K-12 funding might be able to win them over. Offering rural school districts a financial cushion for any students they lose to a school choice program could be the way to finally get rural legislators on board–and it would be far cheaper than strategies used in Arizona and Florida that involved massive statewide public school funding boosts to make school choice expansion politically viable.

The Role of Rural Superintendents in School Choice Battles

Why are Republican legislators so willing to buck their party and side with teachers’ unions when it comes to school choice? In The Progressive magazine earlier this year, public school advocate Jessica Levin claimed, “Republicans representing rural areas know vouchers won’t benefit their constituents because of the lack of private schools in these areas and because public schools often are important for jobs and community-building.”

But research by the Brookings Institution casts doubt on the first part of Levin’s explanation, finding nearly 7-in-10 rural families have access to one or more private schools within 10 miles of their home. It seems more likely that rural Republicans’ opposition comes down to how the expansion of alternative education options could affect public school jobs and the broader community.

Back in 2005, the Texas Tribune editorial staff explained the important role that superintendents play as employers: “In many parts of rural Texas, where schools and prisons are the only economic engines, the school superintendent is one of the most powerful people in the county.” This is the reality in many parts of the U.S.

Rural superintendents reasonably don’t want to deal with the fallout of shrinking budgets that can come if there is an exodus of public school students to private options. Such a prospect is especially challenging given the school districts’ diseconomies of scale. Losing funds could lead to layoffs and potential negative effects on local culture. While these concerns are valid, they shouldn’t outweigh the benefits of giving families agency over their K-12 education, including positive effects on parent satisfaction, participant test scores, and long-term outcomes.

Nevertheless, some lawmakers are reluctant to go against their influential superintendents on the issue of choice. In 2006, Clint Bolick—then president of the Alliance for School Choice and now a justice on the Arizona State Supreme Court— remarked that “rural superintendents have been the bane of our existence.”

School choice advocates have recently started to push back against some lawmakers’ loyalty to their superintendents. In Iowa, Kentucky, and Texas, Republican officeholders backed by teachers’ unions lost their primary elections this year over their opposition to school choice.

This approach may help choice programs advance in these states, but advocates should also consider other strategies for expanding educational opportunities for students if efforts at the ballot box don’t prevail.

The Way Forward

In 2022, Arizona passed the most expansive school choice program in the country. The bill’s sponsor, House Majority Leader Benjamin Toma, credited the win to $1 billion in new funding for public education, writing “We were able to make that investment knowing it was buying radical reform.”

Arizona certainly isn’t alone in appropriating more money for public schools, with many states—including Georgia, Iowa, and Utah—using large budget surpluses to boost K-12 funding for the 2022-23 school year. However, Arizona was alone in using new dollars to secure a historic school choice victory that fundamentally changes public education in the state. But there might be a cheaper pathway to neutralizing rural Republican opposition to school choice: Holding rural school districts harmless.

Admittedly, hold harmless policies are frequently criticized by advocates of fair school funding—including these authors—and with good reason. Hold harmless policies fund schools based on outdated enrollment counts or revenue levels. These policies divert funding away from schools attracting new students and create unfair funding patterns if left in place for years.

However, the political realities of K-12 education finance make it so that even a school choice bulwark like Arizona must put a billion dollars on the table to entice enough Republican legislators to support school choice expansion. Holding rural school districts harmless is a far less expensive option and it could be entirely offset by the fiscal savings that a universal school choice program accrues.

A Test Case: Oklahoma

As a test case, consider the failure of Oklahoma policymakers in the 2022 legislative session to pass S.B. 1647, which would have created an education savings account program. The bill failed in the state senate with a vote of 22 to 24. Remarkably, 18 of the 24 “nay” votes were Republicans. As expected, these 18 Republicans represented the jurisdictions containing about three-quarters of the state’s small, rural districts. For the sake of simplicity, we are assuming small districts of fewer than 750 students can be counted as rural districts.

How much would it have cost Oklahoma’s choice-supporting policymakers to offer financial assurances to the rural districts largely represented by these 18 “nay” Republicans?

Consider a scenario where all Oklahoma school districts with fewer than 750 students would be held harmless for any students they lose to an education savings account program. Such a remedy would extend beyond the state’s existing one-year declining enrollment hold harmless policy. Excluding charter schools, this would include about 70 percent of the state’s school districts. Next, assume that each of these districts loses 5 percent of their students to the ESA program. Based on state school finance data from the 2020-2021 school year, we estimate it would cost the state roughly $30 million each year to continue funding these small districts as if they hadn’t lost any students.

For context, the Oklahoma legislature appropriated $3.164 billion for K-12 education in FY 2022—a $171.7 million increase from the previous year. It’s also worth emphasizing that the Sooner State, like many other states, already has special funding allotments for small and isolated school districts, so targeting additional dollars to rural districts is nothing new.

To be sure, there are multiple ways to construct a policy that would assuage rural districts’ fears of losing money to school choice programs. It would also be wise for legislators to cap any program like this to prevent small districts from relying too heavily on hold harmless funding. But even with a generous cap, holding rural districts harmless for any enrollment losses to school choice programs appears relatively cheap and could be an effective way to get rural Republicans on board with school choice. It’s also a policy that could pay for itself given the fact that school choice programs can provide savings for state education budgets.

After years of resistance from rural Republicans, school choice advocates are rightfully frustrated. Recent efforts at the ballot box seem encouraging for choice supporters, but this coalition should consider an approach to policy making that recognizes the concerns of rural superintendents while securing universal school choice for families. This path could provide much-needed changes to K-12 education and save taxpayers money in the long run.

Aaron Smith is the director of education policy at Reason Foundation. Christian Barnard is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College