Searching for Hamlet: To be or not to be for rural education

Last Updated: July 18, 2009

This article appeared in the July 2009 Rural Policy Matters.

Commentary by Marty Strange and Robin Lambert
President Barack Obama is sending cabinet members in groups of two to five on a “Rural Tour” in July and August to discuss how communities, states, and the federal government can work together to strengthen rural America. It is not clear at this writing how these discussions will be structured — that is, who will be invited to talk and who will be responding.
But we hope that the tour is focused on listening to rural people.
And we hope that it will be designed to do more than just get people to describe rural problems, which to be sure are many and varied. If it is really serious, the tour will inform senior officials about the roots of those problems, draw out the ideas of rural people, seek out approaches that are already working, recognize good things that are part of rural life and rural places, and bring rural people into the process of shaping a comprehensive national policy agenda that will value and sustain rural places and people.
The tour includes nine stops, each one devoted to a single issue or a group of related issues. Most of the stops are scheduled in “swing” congressional districts. Only two are represented by Republicans (Alaska’s at-large district and Nebraska’s Third), both of whom are considered safe for re-election. The other seven districts on the tour are represented by Democrats, and six of them are swing districts that were won by Democrats in 2004, 2006 or 2008. The Rural Tour stops are mostly in congressional districts where the Republicans hope to rebound against new Democratic incumbents in the 2010 mid-term elections and where the Democrats aim to stop them.
Hamlet’s Representative Larry Kissell is a good example. A high school social studies teacher, Kissell narrowly lost (by 329 votes) to four-term Republican incumbent Robin Hayes in 2006, then defeated him in 2008. The district has long been considered not electorally safe for any incumbent.
The political intent in the choices about where the tour will stop is unmistakable. Yet because most of these districts have no stable party plurality they are also likely to be places where residents will illuminate rural realities from a variety of perspectives. That will matter if the tour is intent on listening and not on delivering a one-way communication aimed at selling rural communities on policies that could be disastrous for them.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will be the only secretary at all nine stops on the tour. That’s too bad. The Agriculture Department has long been viewed as the “rural” department of the federal government. But many rural areas are not dominated by agriculture, and every rural place is affected by all kinds of public policy. And although some of the Department’s smaller programs are targeted to low-income rural people and to re-building local rural economies, the Department has, overall, not been about the business of making sure rural communities are able to maintain strong and diverse economies that provide opportunities for young people and new residents. It would be a new and better approach if more Secretaries participated in a variety of tour stops.
The Rural Tour’s Education Stop
The tour session focused on rural education will be on August 17 in Hamlet, North Carolina where Education Secretary Arne Duncan will join Secretary Vilsack.
Hamlet is in the Richmond County School District. It enrolls about 8,000 students, 40% of whom are African American. Nearly two-thirds of students are income-eligible for federally subsidized meals. Based on the number of children who qualify for Title I, the district ranks in the poorest 6% of rural and small town districts in the country. Reading and math scores are among the lowest in the state. The county graduates only 65.1% of its students, and the district is one of nine in North Carolina to be in its fifth year on the NCLB school improvement list.
Hamlet could provide the background for an earnest discussion of turning around “failing” schools, a popular theme with Secretary Duncan.
But only if the Secretary will listen rather that preach two of his favorite turnaround solutions: charter schools and paying teachers according to the test scores of their students.
Both ideas have their critics. Several studies have suggested charters may do little if anything good for student achievement. The most recent, from the Stanford Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, found “in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their TPS [traditional public school] counterparts,” with 46% of charters performing about the same as traditional public schools, 37% performing worse, and only 17% performing better. North Carolina has been an ambivalent charter supporter, capping the number at 100.
Likewise, teacher pay-for-performance raises a number of questions, not the least of which is that no one knows how to measure teacher performance accurately. But the more dogging issue is that even though teaching quality is doubtless the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement, it pales in comparison with the dead weight of poverty, inadequate health care, housing and food instability, and other out-of-school factors students bring with them to school each morning.
As “solutions,” charters and performance-pay rest heavily on ideas like “competition” and “choice” and “incentive.” These ideologically-freighted business models are not well suited to rural education. How does one reliably rate the performance of a teacher who teaches five different math courses to 12–18 students each, half of whom spend three hours of their day on a school bus? What does incentive mean when the next district over already pays teachers $10,000 more? And, what difference does competition make if the closest school is forty miles away?
Real Challenges, Different Circumstances
What matters a lot more is whether rural schools have the fiscal capacity to meet the challenges before them. In state after state, fiscal chaos reigns and when budget cutters turn to education, usually the biggest ticket in the state budget, they look to cut where the opposition is weakest, the damage most dispersed, and the victims most invisible. That often means rural schools in high poverty areas.
As of July 1, 24 states had cut education spending and 18 states, including North Carolina, had not yet passed a budget and are almost certain to cut education.
North Carolina is faced with a yawning $4 billion budget shortfall. Funding for teachers will be cut in some way. Programs providing extra support for low-wealth districts, small districts, and at-risk students, are to be cut, too. These are programs targeted to the poorest places, like Richmond County.
When states cut aid to local school districts, wealthy districts often replace the lost revenue with increases in local taxes, usually property taxes. Property-poor districts can’t do that very effectively. Even large increases in tax rates (where the law allows) raise relatively little money on a per-pupil basis.
Reducing state aid is usually a form of fiscal asphyxiation for rural districts. They have little to cut, so they defer maintenance on buildings, wait to purchase necessary materials, try to maintain teacher salary levels. But they lose teachers anyway to districts that have the resources to pay much more. Poor rural districts become a kind of teacher “farm system.” This constant process only intensifies during periods of fiscal stress.
Charters and performance-pay don’t make the rural situation better; they make it worse. When students transfer to charters (where they exist), they usually take state, federal, and even local aid with them, leaving the regular school with the same sagging fiscal and physical infrastructure but fewer resources. And performance pay only encourages rural teachers — who already earn less at all levels of experience and performance than other teachers — to seek more gainful employment in less stressful circumstances.
These funding matters are state policy issues. But the federal government treats rural districts no better.
Federal Policy
The major federal support for local school districts is Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides federal funds to help schools overcome the negative impact of poverty on student achievement.
Title I formula uses a weighting system that artificially inflates the count of students eligible for the funding in large districts and shifts money from smaller districts, often with higher poverty rates, to larger districts, even those with lower poverty rates.
Richmond County Public Schools received $1,209 Title I funds per eligible student in school year 2008–09 while Chicago received $2,273. This despite the fact that 31.8% of the students in Richmond are Title I eligible compared to 26.6% in Chicago. This disparity is a federal policy Secretary Duncan should help fix. As Secretary, he’s not from Chicago anymore.
Listening to Rural
If participants in the Rural Tour listen well during the rural education stop in Hamlet, they will hear that rural poverty can’t be overcome by labeling schools failures, that schools can’t hang on to poorly paid teachers by bullying them to improve test scores, and that fiscally starved traditional public schools can’t get better by sending their funds to charters.
They will, to be sure, hear that rural schools need funding on par with other schools. They will hear that rural students need much better access to college; that rural schools need support to teach burgeoning populations of English Language Learners.
If they listen closely in all nine places, they will hear that many rural young people want to remain in or return to their own communities but that economic opportunities have been largely stripped out, that most rural residents need much better access to quality medical care locally, that many rural places are being rendered nearly uninhabitable and their futures denied by environmental degradation of all kinds; that rural people die disproportionately on highways poorly maintained and heavily trafficked by the trucks that bear away the meat and grain, trees and coal, and other resources on which most of the country depend; that too many rural children spend far too much of their lives sitting idly on a school bus because schools in their own communities have been closed. These community issues are also education issues.
They will hear specific local challenges, too, because rural America is nothing if not diverse.
In these painful descriptions, they’ll also hear hope and persistence and examples of what can make rural places strong and vibrant.
Real Solutions
We do need new innovations, innovations based on real experiences of rural schools that are successfully coping with the kind of issues Richmond County Schools face. And we need support for tried-and-true solutions like smaller schools and shorter ride times for students, distance education technologies that allow schools to share teachers and resources, curriculum that engages rural young people in revitalizing the places they live, equitable funding, and supports for communities. In each of these solutions rural schools have much to teach that is worth learning.
An Office of Rural Education Research prominently placed and well funded in the U.S. Department of Education should be commissioned to document and spread innovation, to gather meaningful data on schools, and to help craft policy within the Department so that rural schools and their students are served by the Department’s actions.
Without targeted solutions many rural communities will be left to wither away and many rural schools will be fiscally asphyxiated or otherwise drummed out of existence.
To Be or Not
The biggest issue facing many rural communities and their schools is simply whether they have a right to exist and whether the terms of their existence allow communities to flourish and schools to do their job.
Hamlet, North Carolina will be the place where like it or not a vexing question for rural schools and communities will hang in the air on August 17. That question posed by the indecisive Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark and the most eloquent of all Shakespearean tragic heroes: “To be or not to be? That is the question.”
Prince Hamlet directed that question to himself. But for the thousands of rural hamlets across the country that almost universally want “to be,” the question is directed mainly at policymakers and public officials and it has an important twist: “will you let us be?”
However, simply being allowed to be is not enough for those of us who live in or love rural communities. We ask, “how do we become the best we can be?” An answer to that question requires that those individuals and agencies vested with the public trust hear and see us — in all our varied realities — rather than dim images of what we are thought to be or even dimmer images of what is thought we should be, images ginned up in urban places or handed down from business cultures.
Contribute your views on important rural issues for a National Rural Education Policy Agenda at

Read more from the July 2009 Rural Policy Matters.