Rural North Carolinians Raise Essential Issues with Secretary Duncan

Last Updated: September 29, 2009

This article appeared in the September 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was in Hamlet, North Carolina last month, members of North Carolina Rural Education Working Group were there, too. They put some tough questions to the secretary and got some specific responses.
“I spoke about the unfair treatment related to discipline in the schools and how this for the most part affects African American males,” says Alonzo Braggs, a Working Group (NCREWG) member who was able to address Secretary Duncan directly.
Anthony Clark, another NCREWG member, was also at the meeting. “Duncan said they had done research on this issue in Chicago,” Clark says. “They found that seven schools had the majority of suspensions and expulsions — and drop outs. Schools with similar demographics and sometimes just blocks apart had very different discipline rates and outcomes.”
Clark continues, “Duncan acknowledged the disparity and said it was their belief that it was the schools, not the students, that had failed and that schools were exhibiting bias in their treatment of students. He talked about the necessity of training and re-training teachers and administrators.”
Braggs says that the fact that Duncan was able to personalize his response to the question meant a lot to him personally.
“I was astounded to hear a person in authority address the condition of the black male in a humane way,” adds Clark.
Title I
As a group, NCREWG had agreed on the issues they wanted to raise during the Secretary’s visit. Another issue was Title I funding.
“I was able to direct the question of Title I funding disparity to the Secretary,” says Clark, who explained that schools in rural Richmond County, North Carolina get about $200 less per eligible student than schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg school district even though Richmond County has a poverty rate twice that of Charlotte-Mecklenberg (32% compared to 16%).
Making the case in even starker terms, Clark pointed out that Richmond County schools get more than $1,000 less per eligible student than schools in Chicago, and he asked Duncan directly: “what will the Obama Administration do to end this discrimination against high poverty rural school districts?”
Clark explains, “That disparity impacts rural districts in a major way because they have less money to provide services to disadvantaged or disabled students, students who need the most.”
Secretary Duncan acknowledged the disparities. “He said there are cabinet-level discussions about altering the funding formula because of its unfairness to rural schools,” says Clark. “And he promised to send something in writing about the Title I issues. I was elated with his response.”
NCREWG also shared information with administration staffers about a grow-your-own teacher program in rural Bertie County, North Carolina as an example of the kind of program that could help address the real challenges of rural schools.
Rural Challenges
“Too often rural communities are not able to have the lucrative representation that urban communities possess,” says Braggs. “It has almost depleted any [rural] voice to speak to the powers-that-be. But it is critical to share the total truth of our schools and other areas of concern. And it was an honor to see national leadership receive and respond to this information.”
Clark also addresses the unique challenges of rural places. “There are many commonalities between urban and rural, but there are distinct issues that pertain to rural. Size, location, and logistics of being able to operate are challenging in rural places. Things are spread apart and different dynamics come into play that affect parents’ ability to participate in their children’s schooling and even everyday experiences.”
He continues, “When adults cannot actively participate because of distance, it’s important for elected officials to reach out and provide opportunities for rural people to share their concerns. And if we as parents and citizens don’t share what we know, elected officials may never understand how much [specific policies] hurt rural children.”
He points to the Title I issue. “We were able to raise questions about funding, in part because of the training and information we received through the Rural Trust and the NCREWG. It improves our ability to be advocates for our communities because we can present data, not just our emotional appeals. As parents we really want change. We want our kids to perform at the highest levels possible. They need the best education to do that.”
He concludes, “They say they want parent involvement. This is a high level of parent involvement.”
Don’t miss Why Rural Matters 2009: Sneak Preview.
Read more from the September 2009 Rural Policy Matters.