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Rural Educators See Bright Future, Innovation Despite Fiscal Woes

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Kansas City, Mo--Despite the farm problems that limit the financial resources available to rural school districts and the state reform mandates that add heavily to the districts' costs, many of the rural educators gathered here for the second annual National Rural Education Forum offered an optimistic view of the future.

Several of those who prepared papers for the forum predicted, as one phrased it, that "necessity will become the mother of invention," and rural schools will become leaders in educational innovation, using technology, partnerships, and voluntary cooperative arrangements to overcome their financial woes.

But some problems facing rural schools--the looming teacher shortage, for example--sparked sharp disagreement about how best to respond. And concern about finances led to speculation that state legislators may once again look to consolidation as a way to cut costs.

The forum, sponsored by the U.S. Education Department, was organized around the presentation of eight research papers on issues of interest to rural educators. Its purpose, according to Duane M. Nielsen, chairman of the forum planning committee, was to heighten awareness of rural-education issues and to increase the body of knowledge about those issues.

The papers and responses to them will also contribute to the development of a national rural-education research agenda, he said. (See related story on this page.)

Many participants saw the forum itself as evidence of the department's continuing commitment to rural education, enunciated in 1983 in its rural education and rural family education policy initiative. That policy promises rural educators an equitable share of the department's funds and expertise.

"One thing we all sense is momentum, accomplishment, and that we're moving forward," said Joseph Newlin, executive director of the Rural Education Association. "The feeling from the department is very sincere. They're trying to help us."

Mr. Newlin said the Education Department has reduced some of the paperwork rural districts must file in applying for federal funds and has made the language of federal poli-cies "more sensitive" to rural needs.

But he said research funds for rural educators have increased by only "a trickle." He and others expressed concern about the resignation of Robert M. Worthington, the assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, who chairs both the department's rural-education committee and the interagency committee on rural education, and the failure of Secretary of Education Willam J. Bennett to commit himself publicly to support the 1983 initiative.

In a paper titled "State Policy Trends and Impacts on Rural School Districts," Roy H. Forbes, director of the Rural Education Institute at East Carolina University, set the mood for much of the conference, citing many of the problems the reform movement poses for rural school districts but concluding that rural edu-cation "may be a big winner.''

"The reforms bring challenges to rural educators and policymakers," he wrote. "The reforms require creativity and a willingness to do things in a different manner. The reforms bring extraordinary opportunities for real progress."

"Initially, small districts are going to be under a lot of stress," Mr. Forbes added. "Then there's going to have to be another look at how money is put into education. That's extremely optimistic, but I think it's going to happen."

Others said they see the reform movement as an opportunity to build on the traditional strengths of rural schools and to demonstrate their effectiveness.

Noting that "the components of excellence are available for all schools," Ardys Clarke, director of the center for bilingual/multicultural education at Montana State University, said rural educatorsel70lshould "welcome" the demand for educational excellence.

"Research shows that effective schools place a high priority on the basics ... and rural schools are doing just that," she said.

"For once, we may have an advantage," she added.

James D. Jess, superintendent of a rural Iowa district, agreed. "We've never been able to wander too far" from providing the basics, due to lack of funds, he said. Now it turns out that "what people really want is what we've been giving them all along."

"We'll never be able to provide the same programs as in the suburban schools," he added. "We have to provide what we can provide and do it well."

Mr. Forbes identified technology as a key to rural districts' ability to respond to the reform movement, a theme reiterated by Daryl Hobbs, professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri, in his paper, "Bridging, Linking, Networking the Gap: Uses of Instructional Technology in Small Rural Schools."

"After years of following the lead of urban schools, there are reasons to expect that the educational-innovation shoe may be on the other foot, and that rural schools will lead the way in innovative applications of technology in the future," Mr. Hobbs wrote.

As examples, he cited two projects in which language courses will be beamed this fall from universities in Oklahoma and Utah to numerous rural districts in those states.

According to Mr. Hobbs, rural schools are taking the lead in the use of new technologies for two reasons: as small organizations, they tend to be more adaptive, and "they have a problem, unique to them, for which technology might reasonably be expected to contribute toward a solution."

That problem--the need to overcome the particular challenges posed by their demography and location--has traditionally been solved by consolidation. But according to Mr. Hobbs, "declining numbers of students, increased travel costs, and lack of public support combine to make consolidation an outmoded strategy for solving the traditional rural-school 'problem' in most parts of the country."

"Having nearly reached the limits of consolidation, ... more attention is being focused on technology and organizational innovations," he concluded.

In a paper on "Equity in Rural School Finance," John Augenblick, a partner in a Denver-based education-consulting firm, and Paul M. Nachtigal, senior associate with the Mid-continent Regional Education Laboratory in Denver, also argued that future consolidations will be limited because "any additional reductions are likely to be small."

Mr. Augenblick and Mr. Nachtigal were less sanguine, however, about the future of rural schools than were some other participants. They pointed out that schools in agricultural areas face "increasing demands, tighter budgets, and often declining enrollments."

State-mandated reform legislation "greatly exacerbates the 'overburden' of small rural schools," while the decline of the farm economy "has caused the tightening of budgets at both the state and local levels," they stated.

"Clearly some imaginative funding and implementation strategies will be needed if these policies are to result in the improvement of rural education," they concluded.

In the conference keynote address, Neil E. Harl, a professor of agriculture and economics at Iowa State University, underscored the rural schools' dilemma, noting that the collapse of the farm economy creates an "unprecedented demand for educational services" while resulting in "diminished local capacity to support" it.

Federal budget cuts, loss of property-tax revenues due to defaults by farmers, and reductions in state aid to rural districts where enrollments decline will create "intense" pressure at the state level for new taxes, he asserted.

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