Rural Students Deserve Fairness

Last Updated: February 28, 2011

This article appeared in the February 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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Kappan, March 2011“One-third of American children attend school in rural or small towns, but we overlook their needs and fund their schools poorly,” reads the sub-heading of a Phi Delta Kappan article by Rural Trust Policy Director Marty Strange. The article, “Finding Fairness for Rural Students,” is featured in the March issue of Phi Delta Kappan magazine. The article is one of several devoted to rural education. Strange will also be interviewed in a free Kappan webinar on March 24th. Click here for more information about how to access the webinar.

“Finding Fairness…” notes that although a national statistical profile of all rural students is close to a national average on many variables, “national averages mean very little in a rural context.” For example, if the 10% of rural and small town districts with the highest rates of disadvantaged students were one school district, “it would be the largest, poorest, most racially diverse district in the nation.”

But these high-poverty, low-wealth rural districts are dispersed across the nation and concentrated south of a line running from Washington, D.C., through Cincinnati, Kansas City, Denver, and Sacramento. Therein lies the source of two primary challenges for rural education. “Dispersion and poverty are two of the most virile enemies of political power, and where they coincide, they leave in their wake some of the most meagerly funded schools in America,” writes Strange.

Much of “Finding Fairness” is devoted to exploring the links between geographic dispersion, poverty, and political power and the vulnerabilities that these circumstances create for rural schools and their students, especially vulnerabilities related to school finance and consolidation.

“In far too many states, funding systems have been crafted that systematically deprive rural schools, especially those in low-wealth regions, of the fiscal capacity to provide an education that meets contemporary standards,” Strange notes. It is not surprising that the majority of school finance lawsuits have been filed by rural plaintiffs.

Poor finance conditions are one of the factors that leave rural schools and school districts vulnerable to forced closure through consolidation, particularly through what Strange calls “fiscal asphyxiation.” And, although consolidation has not been shown to offer significant cost savings and has been shown to harm students and communities, many states nevertheless incentivize or mandate it. The impact is not uniform across rural communities: poor communities are especially vulnerable from a fiscal standpoint. And, Strange writes, “mandated consolidation is always forced on the politically most vulnerable schools — those that serve low-wealth communities, especially communities of color.”

Finally, “Finding Fairness” illustrates how federal programs, particularly the Title I program, which provides additional funding for very low-income students, also fails to address the needs of rural schools in an equitable way. The program, as currently formulated, provides more funding for low-income students in larger districts, regardless of poverty rate, than it does for smaller districts with very high poverty rates, essentially shifting resources away from many of the poorest districts in the nation and into larger, wealthier districts.

“With one-third of U.S. public school students in rural or small-town schools, some of them in the poorest communities in the nation, the needs of these schools can be ignored only by dropping the pretext that the education of every child matters,” Strange writes in conclusion.

“Finding Fairness for Rural Students” appeared in the February issue of Phi Delta Kappan, February 2011 vol. 92 no. 6 8 – 15. Read the full text at the Phi Delta Kappan website at Sign up to participate in the March 24th Phi Delta Kappan webinar featuring an interview with Marty Strange at

Read more from the February 2011 Rural Policy Matters.