Getting Real About Rural Schools

Last Updated: August 20, 2009

This article appeared in the August 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
The Rural Trust has recently identified the poorest rural and remote small town school districts. We have also conducted extensive analysis of the impact of changes to Title I formulas and demonstrated that federal funding has been systematically reallocated from high-poverty small and medium sized districts, including both rural and smaller city districts, to large urban districts, many with lower poverty rates.
We have demonstrated that the poorest 10% of rural school districts have poverty rates higher than most of the largest urban districts. Together they serve more than 1.3 million students, with no racial/ethnic group constituting a majority (read more about them in High-Poverty Rural, Small Town Districts Concentrated in Distinct Regions). Despite their poverty these districts receive significantly less federal funding per student, and in most cases they also receive significantly less state and local funding.
The Rural Trust documents these realities, in part, because far too many public officials, media outlets, and organizations involved in shaping public life operate as if the most uninformed, but prevalent, notions about rural places were the norm: that they are simple and uniform, mostly white, mostly relatively prosperous, but nevertheless withering away because of their own irrelevance.
The reality is that rural places are diverse, complicated, and also essential to a healthy national economy and culture. Policies and practices based on simplistic ideas do real harm, especially in places where some combination of poverty, racism, deep-rooted economic inequality, and environmental degradation are part and parcel of both local history and current life.
But policies and investment based on good information and solid understanding could help turn things around even in those rural places where things are toughest, which is why they are the places on which Rural Trust focuses most of its attention.
Getting Real
The poorest rural schools are located in places with some of the most entrenched patterns of racial and economic discrimination and oppression in the country and in states where resources tend to be most limited and policy harshest toward poor people.
Schools in these districts often face high rates of teacher turnover, facilities trend toward disrepair, and basic supplies are frequently lacking. In many places, schools are the last public institution and play a pivotal role in community life. In others, schools have been closed and students are forced to make very long rides to large schools where they must deal with marginalization, lack of access to opportunities, pushout/dropout pressures, and schoolhouse-to-jailhouse disciplinary practices.
Yet in these poorest rural places exist resources and opportunities that could be more effectively marshaled. Many local people are involved in efforts to make things better; voter turnout in 2008 elections tended to be high in these communities signaling interest in electoral affairs. For many rural residents — including young people, loyalty to family, community, and local natural environment trumps personal economic ambition and they want to live in their communities and help them flourish.
In addition, schools are central institutions in rural communities that have untapped potential for engaging young people in efforts to make communities better places to live and for providing more challenging curriculum and educational opportunities.
Seeing Opportunity
Strong rural schools in very poor communities are an achievable goal because they already exist in some places. Such schools should not, however, depend on the extraordinary efforts of extraordinarily talented individuals.
Ensuring strong schools in the toughest places is a shared responsibility and achieving them will require commitment and investment at the policy level, from organizations interested in public affairs, and from the communities themselves.
To these ends we offer the following action strategies, each aimed at a different combination of policy makers and public officials, philanthropists and non-profit groups, colleges, and local community residents, all of whom are needed to ensure that students in the poorest rural places have a fair shot at educational opportunity and making their best contributions.
Fix the Title I formulas so that poor students in rural communities and small cities get as much federal money as poor kids in other places.
Bring rural people together so they can learn from each other and take collective action to address common concerns like teacher training, recruitment, and retention; school finance; harmful pushout/dropout and discipline policies; keeping schools in communities; educating burgeoning populations of English Language Learners; and improving college-going opportunities for rural students.
Explore and support legal strategies related to school finance formulas and to student-related issues like pushout, harsh and unfair discipline practices, and lack of equitable access to academic and co-curricular opportunities.
Support school staff and community residents to identify and use local resources to provide relevant and engaging curriculum that strengthens community life and improves educational opportunities and cultural awareness and respect for all students.
Elect strong and responsive local boards of education who are accountable to their public school constituents and committed to providing the best possible educational opportunities for all students in their district.
Conduct meaningful research on rural schools to inform policy decisions, support rural advocates and guide educators in their efforts to improve rural schools.
Communicate accurate information about rural schools and communities to policymakers, media, and community groups.
Rural children are a significant portion of our nation’s public school students. They live in all kinds of circumstances and deserve the same opportunities as students elsewhere. Creating those opportunities, especially for the poorest students in the poorest communities, requires new approaches. And that means that the people and organizations who make change must be willing to dispense with vague impressions of rural life and invest in solutions that are knowledgeable about and responsive to the real circumstances of rural communities in all their vast variety.
Don’t miss Groups Address School Pushout Crisis.
Read more from the August 2009 Rural Policy Matters.