Why Rural Matters 2009: State and Regional Challenges and Opportunities

Last Updated: November 29, 2009

This article appeared in the November 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
More than 10 million students attend rural schools in the United States, a number that is growing, according to Why Rural Matters 2009 (WRM), the newly-released biennial report from the Rural Trust on the condition of rural education in all 50 states.
Those 10 million students are a diverse lot. Among the 900 rural school districts with the highest student poverty rates (1.4 million rural students), about 37% of students are eligible for Title I funding, mostly because they live in homes with incomes below the census poverty level and 59% are students of color.
Most of these students live in a band of states stretching from California across the southwest, through the Deep South, and into Appalachia. But significant numbers also live in rural districts in the Great Plains, the Northwest, and Alaska.
The report notes that overall the more diverse a state’s rural students and their families are, the worse the rural educational context in the state is. In other words, states with higher percentages of low-income rural students and rural students of color tend to have educational policies that compound challenges for those students. For example, the most economically challenged districts in these states generally receive the fewest resources. And, the most challenged rural students are generally taught in large school and districts where schools and school governance are removed from the communities in which students live. This despite significant research that low-income and minority students perform better in small schools and districts and in schools with high levels of parent access.
This year’s report includes 25 indicators in five “gauges,” including the new Concentrated Poverty Gauge that takes a closer look at the condition of education in the poorest rural districts in each state.
Also new in WRM 2009 are indicators measuring rural student academic proficiency in comparison with other students on each state’s own NCLB math and reading test. The high ranking states of California, Colorado, and Arizona suggests that rural families in the states hardest hit by the housing bust were already suffering before the housing crisis came to national attention.
Each state has its own WRM page showing its outcomes on all 25 indicators. WRM also includes pages for each indicator showing the rankings of all 50 states and the national average.

Priority Rankings
Why Rural Matters ranks states in each of the five gauges and overall in terms of the importance of rural education and how significant challenges for rural schools are.
The highest priority states are those facing poverty that is both widespread and intense. Rural districts in high priority states have lower levels of school funding and produce achievement outcomes that are lower than rural districts in lower priority states.
“The highest priority states are represented as such because they are states where key factors that impact the schooling process converge to present the most extreme challenges to schooling outcomes, and so suggest the most urgent and most comprehensive need for attention from policymakers,” write the report’s authors, Marty Strange and Jerry Johnson.
It should be noted that high poverty districts in all states face challenges more severe than other rural districts, even in states where the overall rural education context is relatively positive. In some cases, very poor districts perform significantly worse than other rural districts and face much more severe challenges.

Concentrated Poverty
The Concentrated Poverty Gauge identifies the 10% of rural districts with the highest student poverty rates within each state and ranks that subset of districts nationally with regard to five indicators: the total number of rural students, percent poverty among rural students, percent rural minority students, rural instructional expenditures per pupil, and the rural high school gradation rate.
It is clear that very poor rural districts in all states face more challenges than other districts in their states. But poor districts in some states face significantly more challenges than poor districts in other states. Here again, the policy context makes important contributions to student outcomes. For example, the graduation rate for students in concentrated poverty districts in Wyoming is just 28%, while the rate in neighboring Montana is 78%.
A state’s ranking on the concentrated poverty gauge closely correlates with its overall priority ranking.

Where Rural Kids Are
About one-fourth of all rural students live in California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas. But rural populations are a small minority of the total population of these large urban states and rural school face challenges even getting noticed.
The highest concentrations of rural poverty and rural minority students are in smaller more rural and generally poorer states where rural people are a larger percentage of the total state population but where policy is particularly unsupportive to positive student outcomes.
Read the full report and check out your state in Why Rural Matters 2009: State and Regional Challenges and Opportunities at www.ruraledu.org.
Read more from the November 2009 Rural Policy Matters.