Carrying the Torch for Rural Schools

When her husband died last year, Joyce L. Conrad took up his cause.

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Looking out at the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument from her 15th-floor apartment here, Joyce L. Conrad has the chance to reflect on a city in which she and her family have left their mark.

But the 79-year-old rural education advocate isn’t finished yet. Her ongoing work reaches from the halls of government across the Potomac River in Washington to the nation’s smallest rural schools.

As the executive director of Organizations Concerned about Rural Education, or OCRE (pronounced oh-kra), Ms. Conrad continues the work of her late husband, Charles O. Conrad, who died suddenly last year at the age of 80. Mr. Conrad founded OCRE in 1988, and ran it until his death.

Joyce L. Conrad, 79, the executive director of Organizations Concerned about Rural Education, listens as a featured speaker talks to the group during its July meeting.
Joyce L. Conrad, 79, the executive director of Organizations Concerned about Rural Education, listens as a featured speaker talks to the group during its July meeting.
—Sevans/Education Week

Ms. Conrad keeps the OCRE Web site updated and organizes the group’s monthly meetings, which are held in Washington and convene representatives of OCRE’s two-dozen member organizations. Members range from the National Education Association to national public-utility associations.

The meetings provide a place for discussion of rural education and keep intact the small network of rural-minded policy experts in Washington. OCRE sees itself as representing the interests of millions of people who are members of the participating groups, though it has a yearly budget of only about $30,000.

As the matriarch of rural education policymakers in Washington, Ms. Conrad brings her native North Dakotan sensibility and heart for rural people to her part-time work, colleagues say.

“These people need to be represented,” Ms. Conrad said of America’s rural residents during an interview at her home last month.

OCRE was founded with the idea “that the rural areas not be forgotten” in federal policy debates, said Dale Lestina, who for many years was the NEA’s chief lobbyist and has been OCRE’s president since it started.

Major Victories

Now retired from the teachers’ union, Mr. Lestina helps Ms. Conrad carry on OCRE’s mission by promoting some of the group’s causes on Capitol Hill. Over the years, OCRE has shared in such significant victories as the 1997 creation of the federal E-Rate program, which provides discounts on Internet service and aid for telecommunications equipment that have been a boon to rural schools.

Charles Conrad and OCRE also led the campaign to expand use of “qualified-zone academy bonds,” or QZABS. The federal program, enacted in 1997, helps high-poverty rural schools renovate and repair buildings, and buy equipment, by reducing interest payments for school districts.

Ms. Conrad said her husband was a great advocate who cared deeply for his causes. “He always believed in what he was selling,” she said.

A Family Mission

Charles and Joyce Conrad moved to the Washington area from North Dakota in 1977. A Navy veteran of World War II, Mr. Conrad took a job in the Commodities Future Trading Commission during President Jimmy Carter’s administration.

The family had been in the publishing business in North Dakota, and ran a daily newspaper based in Bismarck for 15 years. Ms. Conrad was the editor, her husband the publisher. They also advised Democratic politicians in the state, and wrote some local history books together.

The couple’s three children include North Dakota state Rep. Kari Conrad; U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., is their nephew. Charles and Joyce Conrad and other relatives helped raise the future senator after his parents died in a car accident when he was 5 years old.

Sen. Conrad was an author of legislation establishing the Rural Education Achievement Program, or REAP, which provides extra federal money to hundreds of small school districts.

“The Conrad name is almost synonymous both with rural schools and communities,” said Kari M. Arfstrom, the vice president of OCRE and the associate director of the Association of Education Service Agencies, based here in Arlington.

Ms. Conrad said she isn’t thrilled these days with the way Capitol Hill treats rural education causes. President Bush has proposed eliminating many federal programs that provide extra money for rural schools, even while rural areas face declining enrollment and economic challenges, she noted.

“There isn’t enough emphasis on rural development,” Ms. Conrad said of federal policymaking. “Schools are part of that.”

Vol. 24, Issue 44, Page 6

Published in Print: August 10, 2005, as Carrying the Torch For Rural Schools
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