School bus
James V. Shuls, Ph.D.

“School choice may work in Saint Louis and Kansas City, but it won’t impact most students in the rest of Missouri.” I hear that a lot. On its face, the argument seems reasonable. There just aren’t that many private schools. They’re too far away. Missouri is not populated densely enough to support a substantial supply of private schools outside of Saint Louis and Kansas City.

The only problem with that interpretation is that it isn’t true.

So says a new report from the Brookings Institution that analyzes the percentage of students in each state who might reasonably benefit from a school choice program. For their analysis, the authors of the study map out where students live relative to schools and report the percentage of students with one or more school options (traditional public, public charter, or private school) within a five-mile and ten-mile radius.  

The authors found that 73 percent of Missouri students have one or more private schools within five miles of where they live. The authors argue that these students could potentially benefit from a private school choice program. By contrast, only 65 percent of students have multiple options operated by their district within five miles (and thus could benefit from an intra-district choice program) and only 54 percent of students have non-district options within that radius (and could thus benefit from an inter-district program.)

As we think about the students in Normandy and Riverview Gardens who ride buses more than 30 miles as part of the inter-district transfer program, it is easy to see how a private option would allow these students to remain closer to home during the school day.

But it’s not just there that school choice can help. As the cold hard numbers tell us, there are many more students within reasonable reach of private schools than most people think. These options should not be dismissed out of hand.

Private school choice programs may not provide choices to all students, but they will expand options for a great many. From a policy standpoint and from a moral standpoint, they are worth exploring. 

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.