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Published in Print: March 12, 2003, as Reporter's Notebook

Reporter's Notebook

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Rural Educators Seek To Amplify Their Voice

Rural educators and activists from 25 states gathered in this hilly old resort town last week to share war stories and build hope that they can help schools survive and improve.

At the Rural School and Community Trust's conference for grassroots rural education advocates, the group shared strategies for dealing with what participants described as the biggest problems in rural schools: money, consolidation, and the struggle toward equality.

People at the conference rattled off the issues that matter most to them back home.

In Wisconsin, it's declining enrollment and budget problems. In South Carolina, it's the school finance system. In Montana, it's finding and keeping teachers. And there are others.

"We're in serious trouble in Oklahoma," said Bob Mooneyham, the Norman, Okla.-based executive director of the National Rural Education Association, speaking of his state's dire financial straits.

Some of the educators and activists here are working with local school leaders and parents in their states to amplify their voices and influence on state policy.

Al White, the school board chairman in Montgomery County, Miss., said the fledgling leaders in too many rural places still don't understand the impact of budgets and politics on their districts' chances to improve.

"There's a lot of work to be done there," he said.

Arkansas was the perfect place for rural school advocates to make their case against attempts in several states to consolidate smaller school districts.

Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, is pushing a plan that would require most districts with fewer than 1,500 students to look at ways to consolidate. ("Compromise Emerges to Fix Ark. Schooling," this issue.)

"There's no place rawer and hotter than Arkansas [on school finance]," said Marty Strange, who is based in Randolph, Vt., and serves as the Washington- based rural school trust's national policy director. "But it is ripe and raw in many places."

Rural activists in several states may pursue legal action to press for more school funding, especially because the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 is forcing new standards in testing and teacher qualifications that many rural educators say will be hard to meet.

Greg Malhoit, who directs the Rural Education Finance Center, in Raleigh, N.C., said rural education advocates must be aggressive in court and elsewhere. Otherwise, he suspects, the new federal law will do nothing to improve some of the nation's worst schools, and instead open up an unwieldy and low-quality assortment of charter schools and voucher programs that could exacerbate the inequities that still exist in many rural communities.

While President Bush and his allies say the new federal law is designed to enhance the quality of the nation's schools, Mr. Malhoit went so far as to say its purpose is to "destroy public education."

Rural activists dealing with the reality or threat of school consolidation heard from residents of West Virginia, which has seen hundreds of school consolidations in the past decade.

Linda Martin, the executive director of Challenge West Virginia, based in Charleston, the state capital, has been trying to convince lawmakers that consolidation doesn't make sense and that bus rides are too long in her mountainous home state. Local groups in several counties are actively fighting consolidations, but Ms. Martin said the tide still hasn't turned in the capital.

Democratic Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia has yet to follow through on his promise to form a small-schools commission that might help the anti-consolidation cause, Ms. Martin said. She hopes the day isn't far away when legislators make the connection between research on the success of small schools and what she sees as consolidation's failure to translate into budget savings and academic gains in West Virginia.

Ms. Martin's group recently ran a full-page ad in a Charleston newspaper asking legislators to enforce and strengthen limits on bus rides. Ms. Martin mentioned one county where, she said, dozens of children must now take a 90-minute ride each way because their local school was closed.

"If that bus crashed, they would literally lose the entire generation in that community," she said.

—Alan Richard

Vol. 22, Issue 26, Page 14

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