Federal Office of Rural Education Policy Proposed

Last Updated: May 30, 2011

This article appeared in the May 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

Eight U.S. Senators have joined Max Baucus (D-MT) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) as co-sponsors of legislation to create an Office of Rural Education Policy within the U.S. Department of Education.

The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 946 (SB 946), introduced May 11, would establish the Office, headed by a Director, who would “advise the Secretary on the characteristics and needs of rural schools and the effects of current policies and proposed statutory, regulatory, administrative, and budgetary changes” on State and Local Education agencies that serve rural schools.

Senator Baucus calls the office a “one stop shop” that will enable rural schools to focus on students rather than on adapting to education policy developed for urban areas. He writes: “…our rural schools serve as community centers and economic hubs. They face unique challenges that deserve a unique approach.” Baucus also notes the “growing trend toward unfairly funneling federal dollars to urban education centers at the expense of our rural students.”

Senator Rockefeller notes that in establishing the Office, “We are letting [rural] students know that we believe in their futures and will give them the support they need to achieve great things in their lives.”

The Office of Rural Education Policy Act does not commit additional taxpayer dollars to the Department of Education, but would fund the office and its activities from existing resources within the Department.

Duties and Responsibilities of the Office

In justifying the need for a federal-level education policy office, SB 946 cites data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, the General Accounting Office, and research by the Rural School and Community Trust. Specifically, SB 946 notes the “paucity of rural education research in the United States,” (Rural Trust, “Taking Advantage,” 2011); the increase in rural enrollment, especially the increase in the percentage of rural students of color (Rural Trust, “Why Rural Matters, 2009”); high poverty levels in many rural schools; low rural teacher salaries; high use of distance learning technology by rural schools; and the unintended consequences of policy measures that are uninformed about rural schools and their needs (Rural Trust, “Taking Advantage,” 2011).

The proposed legislation, which is modeled on the Office of Rural Health Policy in the Department of Health and Human Services, outlines seven specific responsibilities for the office. These include establishing a clearinghouse for collecting and disseminating information on teacher and principal recruitment and retention; access to and use of technology and distance learning; student achievement, including achievement of low-income and minority students; innovative approaches, higher education and career readiness and high school completion; access to and quality of early childhood development; access to and partnerships with community-based organizations; professional development; federal and other grants and assistance specifically geared and applicable to rural schools; school finance.

In addition, the office would identify research (and gaps in research) as well as demonstration projects of importance to rural schools; coordinate activities with the Department that relate to rural education; provide information to the Secretary and others on the activities of other Federal departments and agencies that relate to rural educating, including housing, agricultural services, transportation, economic development, health care, disability services, and mental health; coordinate with the Bureau of Indian Education, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Department of the Interior; provide technical assistance; and, produce an annual report on the condition of rural education.

The Office would serve rural schools with Locale Codes 41, 42, or 43 and small town schools not located near a major urban area with Locale Codes 32 and 33. (Click here for more information on Locale Codes.)

Gaining Traction

Joining Senators Baucus and Rockefeller as co-sponsors of SB946 are Senators Mark Begich (D-AK), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Al Franken (D-MN), Kent Conrad (D-ND), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD);  Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Jon Tester (D-MT); Mark Udall (D-CO), and Tom Udall (D-NM).

The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, where it will be debated.

"This has been a priority for the Rural Trust for many years," said Robert Mahaffey, Director of Communications and Marketing. "It's great to be at this point. We want to thank Senators Baucus and Rockefeller and their staffs."

Mahaffey acknowledged that there is still a road ahead to reach passage of the measure, but he added, "We are confident the benefits the Office will provide for rural students, schools, and communities across the country will convince Congress to pass the law and the President to sign it."

If the Committee chooses to refer the bill to the full Senate, the Senate would vote on the legislation. A companion bill would be introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, where the same process would apply. If the bill passes both houses of Congress (or is incorporated in other legislation), it would go to the President to be vetoed or signed into law.

Members of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions are Tom Harkin (D-IA) Chair; Michael Enzi (R-WY), ranking member; and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Richard Burr (R-NC), Robert Casey, Jr., (D-PA), Al Franken (D-MN), Kay Hagan (R-NC), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Mark Kirk (R-IL), John McCain (R-AZ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Patty Murray (D-WA), Rand Paul (R-KY), Pat Roberts (R-KS), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Shelton Whitehouse (D-RI).

A number of organizations around the country have formally expressed support for the Office of Rural Education Policy, including

American Association of School Administrators (AASA)
American Association of Community Colleges (AACC)
Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE)
Association of Educational Service Agencies (AESA)
Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA)
Children's Defense Fund
Coalition for Community Schools
Council for Opportunity in Education
Montana Rural Education Association
Montana School Boards Association
Montana School Superintendents Association
National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE)
National Association of Development Organizations (NADO)
National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)
National Association of Federally Impacted Schools (NAFIS)
National Education Association (NEA)
National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)
National Farmers Union (NFU)
National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition (NFCSC)
National Indian Education Association (NIEA)
National Rural Education Association (NREA)
National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition (NREAC)
National School Board Association (NSBA)
National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA)
Organizations Concerned about Rural Education (OCRE)
Public Education Network (PEN)
Rural School and Community Trust
Save the Children

Let your senators know how you feel about the creation of an Office of Rural Education Policy Act, particularly if you live in a state represented by a member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Read more:

The full text of SB 946:

Information from the website of Senator Max Baucus:

Information from the website of Senator Jay Rockefeller:

Information from the website of Senator Michael Bennet:

Track the progress of the bill at:

The American Association of School Administrators has written an endorsement at:

Read more from the May 2011 Rural Policy Matters.