School choice in flyover country

School choice can’t work in rural areas? Tell that to Judy Welborn (above right) and Michele Winningham, co-founders of a private school in Williston, Fla., that is thriving thanks to school choice scholarships. Students at Williston Central Christian Academy also take online classes through Florida Virtual School and dual enrollment classes at a community college satellite campus.

Levy County is a sprawl of pine and swamp on Florida’s Gulf Coast, 20 miles from Gainesville and 100 from Orlando. It’s bigger than Rhode Island. If it were a state, it and its 40,000 residents would rank No. 40 in population density, tied with Utah.

Visitors are likely to see more logging trucks than Subaru Foresters, and more swallow-tailed kites than stray cats. If they want local flavor, there’s the watermelon festival in Chiefland (pop. 2,245). If they like clams with their linguine, they can thank Cedar Key (pop. 702).

And if they want to find out if there’s a place for school choice way out in the country, they can chat with Ms. Judy and Ms. Michele in Williston (Levy County’s largest city; pop. 2,768).

In 2010, Judith Welborn and Michele Winningham left long careers in public schools to start Williston Central Christian Academy. They were tired of state mandates. They wanted a faith-based atmosphere for learning. Florida’s school choice programs gave them the power to do their own thing – and parents the power to choose it or not.

Williston Central began with 39 students in grades K-6. It now has 85 in K-11. Thirty-one use tax credit scholarships for low-income students. Seventeen use McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities.

“There’s a need for school choice in every community,” said Welborn, who taught in public schools for 39 years, 13 as a principal. “The parents wanted this.”

The little school in the yellow-brick church rebuts a burgeoning narrative – that rural America won’t benefit from, and could even be hurt by, an expansion of private school choice. The two Republican senators who voted against the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine – represent rural states. Their opposition propelled skeptical stories like this, this and this; columns like this; and reports like this. One headline warned: “For rural America, school choice could spell doom.”

A common thread is the notion that school choice can’t succeed in flyover country because there aren’t enough options. But there are thousands of private schools in rural America – and they may offer more promise in expanding choice than other options. A new study from the Brookings Institution finds 92 percent of American families live within 10 miles of a private elementary school, including 69 percent of families in rural areas. That’s more potential options for those families, the report found, than they’d get from expanded access to existing district and charter schools.

In Florida, 30 rural counties (by this definition) host 119 private schools, including 80 that enroll students with tax credit scholarships. (The scholarship is administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) There are scores of others in remote corners of Florida counties that are considered urban, but have huge swaths of hinterland. First Baptist Christian School in the tomato town of Ruskin, for example, is closer to the phosphate pits of Fort Lonesome than the skyscrapers of Tampa. But all of it’s in Hillsborough County (pop. 1.2 million).

The no-options argument also ignores what’s increasingly possible in a choice-rich state like Florida: choice programs leading to more options.

Before they went solo, Welborn and Winningham put fliers in churches, spread the word on Facebook and met with parents. They wanted to know if parental demand was really there – and it was.

But “one of their top questions was, ‘Are you going to have a scholarship?’ “ Welborn said.

Cathy Lawrence, a stay-at-home mom, said her daughter Destiny needed options because of an age-old problem: Bullying that got so bad in middle school, Destiny’s academics began to suffer. Lawrence and her husband, a welder, couldn’t afford private school on their own. But using tax credit scholarships, they enrolled Destiny and her brother in the new Williston school, where they remain four years later.

“The scholarship gives them the advantage, now, to excel academically – to be in a proper environment, and not be subject to all that stuff in a crazy world,” Lawrence said.

Williston Central embodies educational choice beyond scholarships. More than 30 students take online classes through Florida Virtual School. A half dozen take dual enrollment courses at a community college satellite campus. Innovative choice initiatives like course access and education savings accounts could supplement such programs, and be especially useful for rural students.

The school has proved its resourcefulness in more traditional ways. It secured hand-me-down desks from a public school that was moving into new digs, and its parents sanded and painted them anew. The  school also raises about $170,000 a year beyond tuition, Welborn said, to ensure the quality its parents demand.

Many of those parents are the backbone of Levy County’s working class: farmers and firefighters, nurses and deputies, hair stylists and day care workers. Public school educators are in the mix. So are private-pay parents, including a doctor, a banker and an accountant. Most of them attended local public schools. But there’s a shared belief among them that when it comes to raising children, there needs to be a consistent message – a “united front,” Winningham said – from parents, teachers and pastors.

That doesn’t mean academics take a back seat. The school is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Florida League of Christian Schools. Its teachers are certified and have at least bachelor’s degrees. Most have deep roots in Levy. “We’re very selective about our teachers,” said Winningham, from nearby Archer (pop. 1,118). “We wanted teachers who would go beyond teaching, who would connect with families.”

Lawrence said the parents go above and beyond, too, because they know they have a good thing with the school and the scholarships. “If you want to see how many of us would be up in arms,” she said, “try taking it away.”

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