Just south of Charleston, tucked in the valleys of Appalachia, rests Welch, West Virginia, a once prosperous and thriving coal town often referred to as “Little New York.” Fifty years ago, Welch was on the brink of exploding, the coal mine employed men, schools were doing well, and there was great commerce along its downtown streets.
But today, instead of stores and restaurants, the streets are lined with abandoned buildings boarded up from years of neglect. It is the poorest county in West Virginia and has the highest rate of obesity, suicide and drug abuse. It is no longer a town full of possibilities, but rather those unrealized.
The tragedy of Welch is that it isn’t unique. All over Appalachia are small towns long forgotten. Coal mines have for generations been the backbone of Appalachian culture and economy, and once shut down, entire communities were left in a sort of purgatory. People remain in communities that can no longer sustain them, creating an endless cycle of poverty—and that cycle can only be broken with education. But when education is lacking, those people are left without the ability to change their circumstance. They are left without choice.
A Lack of Choice
While the spotlight is often cast over urban districts and their educational needs, rural districts are largely ignored by the national education reform movement, except for random news specials here and there.
Urban districts, while plagued with many of the same issues as rural schools, have one thing that rural communities don’t: choice.
I see the consequences of a lack of choice as a high school teacher here in West Virginia, on top of the struggles rural communities already face every day.
Anyone living in New York or Chicago or Washington, D.C., has at least heard of charter schools and their few coveted spots. If public schools fail to educate their youth, then there are options. The same cannot be said for rural communities.
The lack of choice in rural education is not a problem easily solved, but it must, somehow, be addressed. If and when industry leaves, people are left with very few options, and if they are not offered a solid education they have no future. No one wants to fail. No parent wants their child to struggle through life just to survive. This is why school choice is so important.
A Human Right
Education Post’s new poll found that only 37 percent of rural parents reported having a few good schools to send their children to, compared to 55 percent of urban parents and 53 percent of suburban parents.
This isn’t fair.
If a school is failing, then children should have an option to attend another school.
Often, rural districts only have one high school, but perhaps if the option of school choice was provided, it would serve as a strict incentive to make sure that every school is performing at a high level.
With rural parents reporting the lowest confidence in their children being college ready (74 percent versus 82 percent of urban parents and 81 percent of suburban parents), we cannot afford to push this problem to the side with the same old excuses.
Access to equal education is a human right. Since rural communities are the backbone of America, they deserve no less.