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Published in Print: September 13, 2000, as Ten States Seen as Topping Rural Education Priority List

Ten States Seen as Topping Rural Education Priority List

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Seven Southern states and three in the Great Plains lead an advocacy group's list of places where tending to the serious needs of rural schools could make a big difference in student achievement. But even those states have largely ignored the schools' problems, the group charges in a recent report.

"This report documents our basic message that 'rural matters,' " said Marty Strange, an author of the report and the policy director of the Rural School and Community Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit group that works with more than 700 schools across the nation to strengthen rural education. "It is an important part of our society, with all the complexity of the urban part, but it doesn't get the attention."

For More Information

"Why Rural Matters: The need for Every State to Take Action on Rural Education" is available online from the Rural School and Community Trust. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.)

The report, which was released late last month, urges policymakers to take action on behalf of all rural schools, especially those on the "top 10" list: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and West Virginia.

"These are the states where the need is great, and the political prospects of change are reasonable," Mr. Strange said.

The report notes that one-quarter of the nation's 47 million public school students are enrolled in rural areas or small towns. And almost one in four rural students is a member of a minority group, compared with one in three for the nation as a whole.

State-by-State Rankings

The authors used 2-year- old data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics to rank all 50 states, both for the importance of rural education to the state and for the urgency of the states' rural school needs. Then the authors overlapped the rankings to create the top- 10 list.

The first ranking was based on school enrollments and populations in rural parts of the state, among other factors; the urgency ranking was derived from factors such as teacher pay, student poverty, and state spending. Achievement-test data are missing from the analysis because scores are not comparable from state to state or cannot be broken down by demographic area, the report says.

Located mostly in regions with chronically depressed economies, rural schools in the 10 states are hampered by declining enrollments, poor teacher pay, and communities where both income and educational attainment are low.

The report is addressed to state policymakers and their rural constituents, which accounts for the tilt toward less populous states, where rural residents have proportionately more clout, the authors said.

But every state needs to improve rural education, Mr. Strange said. He noted, for instance, that California has 2.2 million people living in rural places, while Vermont—the most rural state in the nation—has only 381,000.

The authors maintain that policymakers and journalists have largely overlooked rural schools in part because rural people are so widely dispersed that they become politically and demographically invisible. And there is a widespread feeling that their challenges will disappear when growth overtakes outlying communities or when rural people migrate to metropolitan areas and the communities themselves disappear, the authors say.

"This is the attitude this report tries to strike out at by pointing out that a lot of kids go to school in real communities, that those schools and communities have real problems, and that they deserve the attention of policymakers, " Mr. Strange said.

In the second phase of the project, the groupwith the help of rural- life advocates in each state-expects to grade as many as six states on the effectiveness of their rural education policies. An update of the original analysis is planned for 2002.

Vol. 20, Issue 2, Page 17

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