The Estrangement of Rural Schools and Uncle Sam

Today, a group of outstanding scholars gathers for the fourth time to continue the multi-year rural education-reform initiative known as ROCI.

Sponsored by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, chaired by Dr. Paul Hill, and supported by the Bellwether team, this task force is meeting in Boise, Idaho to review an impressive series of second-year papers focusing on rural students and post-secondary enrollment and attainment.

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At the same time, in Washington, D.C. Congress continues its multi-year effort to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). More than 2,000 miles separates the two cities, and, unfortunately, a similar yawning gap stretches between the projects of these two groups. That is, for entirely too long, federal policy has underserved rural America.

Aiming to bridge that divide is a valuable paper from Lars D. Johnson, Ashley LiBetti Mitchel, and Andrew J. Rotherham, “Federal Education Policy in Rural America.” It is among the latest releases from the first year of ROCI, and a great swath of America’s students, including millions of low-income kids, would be well served if its findings and recommendations informed the pending rewrite of NCLB and other federal-policymaking to come.

The paper begins with important rural-ed facts (e.g. 47 million people live in rural America, a quarter of rural families live in persistently poor counties, 25 percent of U.S. students are rural, over half of rural students live in just 11 states) and closes with valuable recommendations.

But the paper makes its money with two middle sections. The first is a review of how various federal policies influence rural education.  You’ll learn why and how Title I disadvantages rural students; how the Small Rural Schools Achievement (SRSA) and Rural and Low-Income School (RLIS) programs differ; why rural districts have trouble securing competitive grants; why Impact Aid and Payment in Lieu of Taxes are so important; and much more.

Then comes the show-stopper. The authors asked a group of rural superintendents and a group of Washington “insiders” the same questions about rural education. Though these two groups agreed that rural life differs greatly from urban/suburban life and that the current US Department of Education doesn’t much care about rural schooling, their differences were stark.

Elites thought the most pressing issues for rural schools were recruiting and retaining teachers and securing classroom technology. Rural superintendents didn’t rate any of these in their top three. Instead, they prioritized increasing special education funding, reducing burdensome federal paperwork, and granting more flexibility in the use of federal funds. Rural superintendents also had important and not always predictable views on school consolidation, shared services, online learning, and personnel decisions.

There’s lots more to learn from and like about this paper. But most of all, you’ll probably find yourself shaking your head that ed reform dedicates so little time to rural schools and that federal K-12 policy is so out of step with the needs of rural communities.

This probably won’t lift your spirits, but hopefully it’ll encourage action.