As rural educators know first-hand, their schools and districts face a unique set of challenges. Many feel that federal policies aren’t crafted with their best interests in mind and that research on rural education issues is lacking.
A new bill introduced late Wednesday by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., seeks to address some of those issues by creating an Office of Rural Education Policy in the Department of Education.
“The goal here is to allow rural schools to focus on students in the classroom rather than red tape in the bureaucracy,” Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement. “Students in rural areas deserve a fair shake at the resources and opportunities afforded to students who live in urban areas. In many of our rural school districts, the superintendent is also the high school principal—and may also coach or teach a class. Rural educators have told me they need a ‘one stop shop’ at the federal level to help address their unique needs, and this legislation does that.”
The office’s director would be tasked with:
Establishing and maintaining a clearinghouse for issues faced by rural schools; Coordinating activities inside the Department of Education regarding rural schools and providing information to the Department on activities of other federal departments and agencies related to rural schools; Producing an annual report on the condition of rural education; and Preparing and publicizing comments on proposed regulations or administrative rules that would have a significant effect on rural schools.
The proposed office is modeled after the Office of Rural Health Policy, at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which was created in 1987 in recognition of the unique health needs in rural communities.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has taken steps to recognize the unique needs of rural schools, and one of those has been to create a new position, a deputy secretary of rural outreach. Still, that role has been more focused on communication and outreach, while this new office would concentrate on policy and research.
Funding and staff for the new office would come from existing resources within the department, according to Baucus. Some of the issues the office would focus on are: small enrollments, federal and state education funding inequities, geographic isolation, recruiting and retaining effective teachers and leaders, and limited access to advanced courses.
More than 20 organizations are in support of the bill, including The Rural School and Community Trust.
The vocal nonprofit advocate for rural schools has pushed for such an office for a long time, and this new proposal will be one of its top legislative priorities, said Rob Mahaffey, the group’s communications director. There’s a dearth of research around rural schools’ needs, and this office would help fill that void, he said.
“We’re very encouraged about how this is unfolding,” he said.
Other co-sponsors of this legislation include Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), and Mark Udall (D-Colo.).
We’ll keep tabs on Senate Bill 946, so stay tuned.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.