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Where School Choice Isn’t an Option, Rural Public Schools Worry They’ll Be Left Behind

The small parking lot outside of Schenck High School was crammed with cars, all there for the basketball game, the town’s featured event that night. The cold winter air whipped around white mounds of snow lining the town’s few residential streets and past the school to the vast blackness of Interstate 95.

This small, remote high school is perhaps East Millinocket’s last and most crucial community pillar. Even before the local paper mill shut down three years ago, the town had suffered a stark economic decline because of the mill’s dwindling profits and the widespread poverty that followed. With a shrinking tax base and an aging population, Schenck High faces an uncertain future.

Washington has long designed education policy to deal with urban and suburban challenges, often overlooking the unique problems that face rural schools like this one. With a new administration in the White House that prefers “school-choice” approaches — favoring charter schools and private-school vouchers so parents can opt out of public schools and bring taxpayer dollars with them — the nation’s rural schools are left to wonder about their fate.