Why Rural Matters 2011-2012 Released This Month

Last Updated: January 27, 2012

Why Rural Matters 2011-12

This article appeared in the January 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

Enrollment in the nation’s rural schools is up. Diversity in rural schools has increased. And the percentage of rural students who live in poverty is rising dramatically.

These are some of the important facts reported in Why Rural Matters (WRM) 2011–12, released earlier this month by the Rural School and Community Trust. WRM 2011–12 is the sixth in a series of biennial reports on the contexts and conditions of rural education. The report provides state-by-state analysis as well as national figures.

Why Rural Matters explores a variety of factors related to characteristics of rural students and their families, education policies that impact rural schools and communities, and educational outcomes for rural schools. This year’s report includes 25 statistical indicators, organized into five “gauges.” The indicators explore state policy, demographics, and student outcomes.

Each state is also assigned a “Priority” ranking that reflects the relative importance of rural education to the state’s overall education system and the level of challenge facing rural schools and students. In states with the highest rankings, both challenges and the percentage of rural schools and students are significant.

WRM is unique in that indicators and gauges are altered from one report to the next. This intentional variation serves to emphasize the variability and complexity of rural education and to highlight for policymakers the priority policy needs of rural public schools and communities in their states.

As an example, the Longitudinal Gauge, which compares recent and earlier data to illustrate changes over time, is included in WRM 2011–12 for the first time. Its five indicators include changes in overall rural enrollment, rural poverty, and the number and percentage of rural Hispanic students.

Key Findings

The data used in WRM is compiled from publicly available information collected and maintained by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). School district data is for the 2008–09 school year, the latest available when the report was produced.

Enrollment: Enrollment in rural school districts grew by nearly two million students, an increase of more than 22% since 1999–2000. (And these figures do not count students attending rural schools located in non-rural districts). By comparison, enrollment in non-rural schools increased by just 673,000 or 1.7%. Rural districts account for about 70% of the nation’s total increase in enrollment increase.

Thirty-one states experienced growth in the total numbers of students in rural districts. These gains were strongest in the most rural states of the South and Southwest. Eighteen states lost enrollment in rural districts. The overall upward trend in enrollment in rural districts continued the general patterns reported in WRM 2009.

Diversity: Students of color comprise one-fourth of all students in rural districts. Between 1999–2000 and 2008–09, rural Hispanic enrollment increased by 150% nationwide. Hispanic enrollment more than doubled in 13 states, including West Virginia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Illinois, Alabama, Kentucky, Alaska, Arizona, Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, and Maryland.

Poverty: The percentage of rural students living in poverty has risen significantly. Between 1999–2000 and 2008–09 the rate of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch increased by nearly a third to 40% of all rural students. The highest rate of increase was in Arizona, where rural poverty rates more than doubled.

Special education: WRM 2011-12 reports data on the percentage of students who have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which indicates that the student qualifies for special education services. It is widely reported that high levels of poverty are associated with a higher percentages of students identified for special education. However, WRM found the opposite relationship in rural districts in many states. In other words, the higher the rate of rural poverty, the lower the rate of students with IEPs. Special education services are only partially supported by federal funds and, therefore, require additional financial support from states and local districts. It could be that lower than expected special education rates reflect a diminished willingness to deliver services to rural students who need them.

General Trends

Although statistical indicators used in the WRM series change from one report to another, the final priority rankings of states have demonstrated considerable consistency. States that are near the top of the Priority Gauge every year are mostly in the South, Southwest, and Appalachia. This consistency over time and over a variety of indicators suggests that urgent attention is needed in these states to better direct education policies to the conditions and needs of rural school districts and their students.

State Pages, Indicator Rankings, and National Maps

WRM uses a variety of formats to present data and illustrate the diversity and complexity of rural education conditions across the nation.

For example, the popular “State-by-State Results” present all the data for each state on a single page. Easy-to-read charts make it possible to see the state’s data alongside national averages.

A different perspective on the same data is revealed in “indicator pages” that rank all 50 states on the same indicator. These pages make it easy to see the wide variations among states in rural demographics and in the policies and conditions that influence student outcomes.

National maps for each of the gauges reveal regional patterns and relationships. A thoughtful narrative interprets the data within the national education context.

Why Rural Matters 2011–12, like its predecessors, provides useful information, valuable perspective, and thoughtful reflection on an important but often overlooked component of the American education system.

Its documentation of overall trends in rural education and its state-level analysis demonstrate the need for policies that are more suited to rural schools, especially in states where the challenges are greatest.

Click here for more information on Why Rural Matters 2011–12 and to download the report.

Read more from the January 2012 Rural Policy Matters.