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New Report Highlights the State of Rural Schools


Share School Issues CenterToday, the Rural School and Community Trust released the first national report providing state-by-state data about rural schools. The report demonstrates the need for policy makers to pay more attention to the special problems rural schools face. Included: Five fast facts about rural America.

Policy makers got a wakeup call today about the importance of paying attention to the needs of rural schools. The non-profit Rural School and Community Trust released an 86-page report, Why Rural Matters: The Need for Every State to Take Action on Rural Education, describing rural education in each of the 50 states. The organization looks at each state's rural population and gauges how "urgent" it is for policy makers to explicitly address each state's rural education issues.

School Issues Image The report suggests that the needs of rural school systems can't be ignored and are far more important than Americans might think from listening to the education policy debate. The report also describes rural people as "so widely dispersed that they are politically invisible."

Walter Annenberg, a publisher, broadcaster, philanthropist, and former ambassador to the Court of St. James, established the Rural School and Community Trust in 1995 with a $50 million pledge. The trust's goal is to reform public education in rural America and to bring rural school issues into the national debate.

STATE-BY-STATE COMPARISONS

"In this publication, you can see the difference between rural areas in each state and the rest of state," said Rachel Tompkins, president of the Rural School and Community Trust. All states have rural populations. They are demographically diverse and scattered throughout each state. Tompkins hopes the report and subsequent annual reports will raise policy makers' awareness of rural school issues.

Highlights of Report on Rural Schools

Today, the Rural School and Community Trust released an 86-page report, Why Rural Matters: The Need for Every State to Take Action on Rural Education. Some highlights of the report include the following:

* One in four children goes to school in a rural area or small town.

* Nearly one in five rural children lives below the poverty level.

* Of the 250 poorest counties in the United States, 244 are rural.

* Rural America is as diverse as urban America.

* Rural schools make up the largest proportion of public schools.

The report points to a cluster of seven states in which rural education is deemed crucial to educational performance and where there is an "urgent" need for attention. They are Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Louisiana and Montana both barely miss the "urgent" ranking.

"Rural areas are among the poorest in the country," Tompkins told Education World. "It often surprises people to learn that 244 of the 250 poorest counties in this country are rural. We hear so much about inner-city poverty."

The report points out that rural America is far poorer than metropolitan areas and that nearly one in four U.S. schoolchildren attends school in a rural area. The unique problems rural schools face go largely unnoticed in the national debate over the direction of the education, however.

  • Recruitment and retention of rural teachers, principals, and administrators is difficult.
  • Teacher salaries are lower.
  • Bus rides are longer and transportation costs are higher.
  • Teachers are expected to teach both in and out of the field.
  • Internet access is delayed.
  • Per pupil costs are higher yet levels of discretionary spending are lower.

SMALL SCHOOLS OFFER BENEFITS

The purpose of the report is to make rural schools -- both the opportunities and the problems they present -- more visible at the national level. The good news is that rural communities still have small schools. "There is increasing research that shows that small schools are important to student learning," Tompkins said. "They're important for all kinds of reasons, so we're very interested in pointing out these advantages. Rural schools also tend to be well connected to their communities. Schools are the places people go to for community events."

MORE TITLE I FUNDS

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has long supported more federal allocation of Title I funds to help children who attend schools in poor areas. "One of our major battlegrounds for helping poor rural and poor urban children is to fight for more Title I money," said Jamie Horwitz, speaking for the AFT. "That is the federal government's primary role for K through 12 in poor school districts."

Title I provides about $8 billion to improve education for some 13 million children who attend 46,500 schools in high-poverty areas. The goal of Title I is to help schools upgrade curriculum, extend learning time, provide professional development for teachers, support teacher salaries, and purchase computers.

Tompkins points out that state and local funding also makes a difference in how well the needs of rural schools are met. "Each community and each state has a little bit different school financing system, so rural communities in some states are better off financially than in other states," she said. "States have different rules and policies, so some of it doesn't have anything to do with local initiative. But for sure, any place that is entrepreneurial can attract teacher who are energetic, visionary, and able to make a difference."

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
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08/30/2000