Rural Values and Beltway Rhetoric: Arne Duncan at the Rural Education Forum

Just over a month ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan presented remarks at the Rural Education Forum for the third time in five years. With both Andy Smarick and I blogging on the topic of rural education here at Ahead of the Heard, I thought it would be interesting to look at how these speeches have changed over the last several years in order to look at how the Department of Education’s approach to rural education has evolved – or stayed the same. While Secretary Duncan’s remarks must be viewed in light of their place as a speech – a type of political rhetoric – they also provide a lens into his department’s views on rural education and its place within the larger education policy landscape.

Secretary Duncan first spoke at the Rural Education Forum in 2010, giving remarks entitled “Rural America: Learning Opportunities and Technology,” an optimistic speech that showcased all that the Department had to offer rural schools.  In this first speech, Duncan focused on the notion that leaders in Washington understood the challenges of rural education and were standing by, ready to lend a helping hand. He brought along senior staff members from the Departments of Education and Agriculture, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to discuss programs that the administration had to offer rural schools and policies they had crafted to improve access to technology.

Three years later, when Secretary Duncan next spoke at the Rural Education Forum, several things had changed. His party had undergone a “shellacking” in the 2010 midterm elections held shortly after his first speech, but the administration won reelection two years later and maintained control of the Senate. Still, tensions were higher this time around and Duncan gave remarks that seemed to indicate that the “beltway and blogosphere” don’t care about rural education. He was on the defensive, focusing on an “us against them” situation wherein the administration believed in rural schools but a crowd of naysayers— “armchair pundits”— believed that investments in rural schools would be foolish, with schools unable to meet application requirements for programs such as RTT and i3.

In his most recent speech to the Rural Education Forum, Secretary Duncan gave remarks entitled, “Leadership by Principle: How Rural Values Contribute to Success in the Classroom.” However, the rural values identified here – caring about a child’s education, perseverance, humbleness, dedication – seem to be the sort of values that help to make many education initiatives work – no matter their location. Here, they just happen to be applied to rural anecdotes, which probably does then make them rural values in a sort of roundabout way.

While Secretary Duncan has had to align his rhetoric to political reality, this isn’t good for rural kids. Instead of saying that there are people who “think of rural education as the poor second cousin of education reform,” as Duncan remarked in 2013, it is important, as Paul Hill writes in a recent paper for the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho, to acknowledge the institutional factors that have disadvantaged rural schools compared to their urban counterparts. What is needed — instead of the division of 2013, the “squishiness” of 2014, or even the optimism of 2010 — is for Secretary Duncan to not only address the problems of rural education but to discuss how his Department can begin to address changes in its programs and policy-making and rule-making processes to help ensure that rural kids get a fair shake and a fair shot at a quality education.

This series on rural K-12 education is supported by a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.