Federal Efforts Lacking, Rural Advocates Say
Education Department Task Force Seen as Missing in Action
Where in the world is the U.S. Department of Education’s rural education task force?
Announced by then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige with some fanfare in 2003, the task force has accomplished little in the eyes of rural education policy advocates.
In fact, it’s hard to find evidence that the panel exists, though the department said that it does, and that it meets monthly.
“The membership of that task force is sort of a mystery to a lot of people,” said Bob Mooneyham, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association, based in Norman, Okla. “You would think … they would at least tell us who the task force members are.”
Given an opportunity to respond to the membership question, Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey explained in an e-mail last week that the task force is an internal group of department officials, but did not provide a full roster of members.
Mary Kusler, a rural education lobbyist in Washington, echoed Mr. Mooneyham.
“We are disappointed that the department has not been more proactive in trying to reach out to rural America,” said Ms. Kusler, a legislative specialist for the Reston, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators. “We have not seen who is on the task force since it was introduced.”
“We just really want to figure out how and when—and if—there’s going to be more substantial work by the task force,” she said.
Rachel B. Tompkins, the president of the Rural School and Community Trust, based in Arlington, Va., said she first learned about the department’s intention to start a rural task force in a meeting about four years ago soon after President Bush first took office. “Then I didn’t hear anything more,” she said.
Secretary Paige announced the creation of the rural education task force in the spring of 2003, and soon after named Tom Luna, a former school board member in Nampa, Idaho, who had lost his bid to become the state’s elected state schools chief, to serve as the panel’s executive director.
Rural education advocates said last week that Mr. Luna makes regular appearances at meetings of rural education groups in Washington, but that he has accomplished little toward meaningful dialogue on education policy between rural educators and the Bush administration.
Mr. Luna was not available for an interview last week, said Ms. Aspey of the Education Department. She said Mr. Luna was not the person who could discuss the work of the task force.
Efforts to reach Mr. Luna directly at work and at home were unsuccessful.
Ms. Aspey released the following statement to Education Week after several days of interview requests:
“Rural students, teachers, and parents deserve the No Child Left Behind Act’s promise of educational excellence, and the department puts a premium on addressing the unique concerns of our nation’s rural schools,” she wrote. “The Rural Education Task Force meets monthly, bringing together leaders from key program offices in the department to discuss the particular issues facing schools in our rural communities and how to best address their needs.”
Ms. Aspey added later that the task force is an internal group consisting of department heads at the agency who oversee vocational and adult education, special education, and elementary and secondary education, and members of their staffs.
Ms. Kusler said that not all has been lost on the advocacy front simply because the rural task force has appeared inactive. Education Department officials have helped preserve some federal funding for rural schools during the past four years, she said.
“You’ve got to give them credit for at least acknowledging that rural is an issue,” she said. “Other than that, we really haven’t seen much activity.”
Ms. Kusler cited a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, recommending a long list of steps the Education Department could take to help rural schools. ("Rural Schools in Need of Guidance, GAO Says," Oct. 6, 2004.)
“Why haven’t we seen the list of activities that the department’s going to undertake?” she said. “I am worried that the desire to help the special circumstances of rural America is more rhetoric than action.”
Mr. Mooneyham is hopeful that the new secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, will give rural education a fresh look. Secretary Spellings began her first full week at the helm of the department last week.
“We’ll just have to wait and see, but hopefully she’ll provide a different type of leadership,” Mr. Mooneyham said.
Members of Congress who often focus on rural issues said they have not been aware of what the rural task force has done since its inception, but support the concept.
Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., who helped announce the task force alongside Mr. Paige, was not aware of concerns about the task force’s efforts, a spokesman said last week. “If there are concerns about the efficiency or the effectiveness of the task force, this would be an optimal time to address it, and Senator Enzi is open to working with all principals here to try to make the task force work effectively,” said Craig Orfield, a spokesman for the Senate education committee, which Mr. Enzi now chairs.
The Rural School and Community Trust’s Ms. Tompkins said she wants the Education Department to provide more help and policy proposals on some of the toughest issues rural schools face.
Those schools need help hiring and keeping excellent teachers, dealing with outdated school buildings, and meeting the academic goals mandated by the 3-year-old No Child Left Behind law, which will be up for reauthorization in Congress in 2007, Ms. Tompkins said.
There’s also a need for more research on rural education topics, and for an expanded definition of rural schools she added.
“I want people at the department just to take advantage of the opportunity to think more broadly about solutions for rural issues,” Ms. Tompkins said.
Vol. 24, Issue 21, Pages 30,32