Education Secretary Arne Duncan met with rural educators Wednesday in Nashville, where he was hosting a roundtable of the White House Rural Council. He spent 10 minutes afterward on the phone with me, talking one-on-one about rural issues.
Duncan commended the educators he had met for being committed and hard-working during these tough economic times.
He said it was helpful to hear their concerns, and those included a lack of money, the need for more flexibility, the difficulty in attracting and retaining great teachers, and finding ways to use technology to equalize access.
The White House Rural Council was created in June with the goal of improving economic prosperity in rural areas through job creation and economic development. Education is one of the 10 key factors that it will target, and Duncan’s listening session with more than a dozen rural superintendents, principals, and business leaders was intended to help the council learn about issues and solutions for rural communities.
I asked Duncan about the council’s focus on increasing post-secondary enrollment rates and completion for rural students. He talked about the “interesting challenge” rural schools face in that they do a better job of graduating students from high school but need help in ensuring those students go on to college.
Duncan mentioned a few solutions, such as online classes that allow students to access college remotely and building college-going cultures in high schools by funding higher-level classes.
He said he plans to spend “a significant portion of time in rural communities” during the upcoming school year.
“We want to find ways to be more flexible and be a better partner,” he said.
There was a mention of it in an Associated Press story, and the biggest concern vocalized by rural leaders appeared to be a lack of funding despite higher expectations.
Here’s what the story said:
James Jones, director of (rural) Polk County schools, acknowledged it's a "little frustrating" coming up with innovative ways to teach on such tight budgets. "But we all understand we need to have higher standards," Jones said. "And we want to meet those higher standards. We just have to keep getting funding to do that." Duncan urged the rural school officials to not hesitate in asking state and federal lawmakers for adequate funding, because he said a good education is important in creating a better economy. "Budgets reflect our values, and not just budgets," he said.
[UPDATE (Aug. 16): Duncan blogged about the conversation he had in Tennessee, and it’s posted here.]
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.