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Published in Print: July 28, 2004, as Teacher-Quality Rules Uneven For Rural States

Teacher-Quality Rules Uneven For Rural States

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Many rural school districts will not have extra time to meet teacher-quality rules under the No Child Left Behind Act, despite the flexibility announced by federal officials earlier this year. The situation baffles some state officials, who say the federal government is using a flawed definition for what "rural" really means.

When the U.S. Department of Education announced changes to the law’s teacher-quality regulations in March, the agency touted the extra flexibility and time rural schools would have to ensure a "highly qualified" teacher works in every classroom.

See Also...

View the accompanying table, "Extensions Affect Regions Differently."

But the department used "an extremely narrowly defined definition of rural" when it granted that flexibility, argued Bill McGrady, the coordinator of federal programs for the North Carolina education department.

A recent report by the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust shows how the teacher-quality regulations could have an impact on some rural areas.

All of Nebraska’s roughly 440 rural districts will receive extra time to meet the law’s teacher-quality mandate, and virtually all rural schools in 15 other states are eligible. Alabama and South Carolina, in contrast, have no rural districts that qualify, and seven other Southeastern states have only a handful that are designated as rural under the regulations, the report shows.

"We’ve laughed about it and said we’re going to have an identity crisis. We thought we were a small, rural state," said Janice Poda, the senior director of the teacher-quality division at the South Carolina education department.

Some state officials want changes in the teacher-quality rules, or more help from the federal government with this part of the law.

"There are some states putting pressure on the Department of Education to use a broader definition" for rural schools, said Patricia F. Sullivan, a deputy executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers.

What Is Rural?

North Carolina is extending flexibility to some rural districts anyway.

Mr. McGrady said his state is granting extensions to dozens of rural North Carolina districts using his state’s "Ed- Flex" status, which qualifies the state for some federal regulatory exemptions.

"We think that’s a more viable option than bringing in long-term subs" to replace some teachers, Mr. McGrady said.

The federal Education Department’s definition of rural schools in the teacher-quality regulations is borrowed from Rural Education Achievement Program’s small-schools funding category, qualifying districts that have fewer than 600 students or located in a county with less than 10 people per square mile. All schools in the districts must be in communities with fewer than 2,500 residents.

Had the department used a broader definition, such as the one used to define low-income rural schools under REAP, another 7,200 more schools might have been eligible for the flexibility, according to the Rural Trust.

Many districts in the West and the Midwest that were granted the teacher-quality extensions are based in remote communities, qualifying those districts under the rural definition. In the South, however, many school districts are countywide systems with larger enrollments, or they’re based in larger small towns rather than less populous areas in the West.

The Rural Trust, based in Arlington, Va., criticized the Education Department’s definition of rural in the teacher-quality regulatory changes in last month’s report. It contends that the department is targeting many heavily minority, poor schools in the South by not allowing them the flexibility.

"Many of the rural schools that are most in need of any kind of additional support or opportunity to meet the letter of the law are excluded in this flexibility," said Robin Lambert, a Harlan, Ky.-based consultant for the Rural Trust who co-wrote the report.

Sheila Talamo, the assistant state superintendent for the office of quality educators in Louisiana, added that "the way rural was defined, it doesn’t appear to address the needs of a rural school district." Dozens more Louisiana districts would be eligible for the teacher-quality extension if the definition were broader, she said.

Louisiana has not sought changes in the regulations, even though only three entities in the state qualify for the teacher-quality extension: two charter schools and one school district, Ms. Talamo said.

‘Willing to Listen’

While the teacher-quality deadline has been extended for many rural districts, some teachers will have to meet the standard sooner than others.

Veteran teachers in the rural districts granted the extension must become highly qualified by spring 2007. New teachers in rural districts under the extension will have three years from their hiring to meet the standard if they’re already highly qualified in one academic subject, according to the federal Education Department.

The federal agency isn’t planning more changes to regulations or the rural definition now, but is willing to negotiate with concerned states and school districts, a federal official said.

"The door is not closed. We’re always willing to listen," said Doug Mesecar, the deputy chief of staff for policy at the Education Department. He added that allowing more districts flexibility would undermine law. Mr. McGrady of North Carolina said federal officials had told him otherwise. "We were basically told it ain’t going to happen," he said.

Extensions were granted for many rural districts in the nation’s heartland after some state leaders told federal officials that most of their schools would have tremendous difficulty meeting the highly qualified teacher rule by the end of the 2005-06 school year, Mr. Mesecar said.

He said that the department will allow Ed-Flex states, including North Carolina and a few others that are allowed some regulatory exemptions, to extend the teacher-quality deadlines for some districts, at least for now.

The Education Department also provides substantial funding under Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that can be used for all sorts of teacher-quality improvements, he said.

"Title II is a very flexible use of dollars and can be used for teacher retention, recruitment, and professional development," Mr. Mesecar said. "States haven’t used all of the flexibility they have, as a general statement, on the issue of Title II monies."

The federal budget for fiscal 2004 allocates $2.9 billion for this purpose.

But Ms. Poda of South Carolina said that federal funding for teacher quality "gets so diluted" that states will have to take "more drastic steps" in compensation and other incentives to improve teacher quality in hard-to-fill areas.

Vol. 23, Issue 43, Page 13

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