More students in the United States attend rural schools than the 100 largest school districts combined.
Yet rural students lack comparable access to school psychologists and counselors, broadband internet, and school transportation while living in communities contending with high unemployment, mental health crises, and more limited access to medical care, according to the latest in a series of reports that detail the state of rural education in the United States.
The just released 2023 Why Rural Matters report by the National Rural Education Association is the 10th of its kind and the first the group has released since 2019. It analyzes the national landscape for rural schools, ranks states on a variety of metrics, and aims to show the priority rural students should be given in education policy discussions.
At a Thursday event in Chattanooga, Tenn., to announce the report’s release, Bob Klein, one of the researchers on the report, categorized it as the most important one in the over 20-year history of Why Rural Matters reports because of what it shows about how the challenges since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic might shape the future of rural schools.
“We’re told frequently that we’re at an inflection point, be it an inflection point for inflation, or an inflection point for political coalitions, the structure of labor, the nature of work, and so on,” said Klein, who is an education professor and chair of the teaching, learning, and foundations department at Eastern Illinois University. “If that’s true then we’re at a point of incredible importance to shape the future of the generation of rural students and the relationship to their communities and the nation more broadly.”
Rural students lack access to mental health care
As with the rest of the nation, mental health care is a major pain point for rural schools. There are 310 rural students to every school counselor or psychologist in their community, according to the report. In non-rural districts, that ratio is 295 students to one counselor or psychologist, the report says.
The situation, which is the result of staffing shortages both for school psychologists and more broadly in the mental health field, leaves students without critical mental health care at a time when rates of depression and anxiety among young people are at an all-time high.
“It’s not just the rural students, but as well the teachers and administrators that are facing mental health challenges, [which] certainly have ripple effects on the students,” Dan Showalter, a professor at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., and one of the researchers on the report, said during a call with reporters.
The report’s researchers hope the data can communicate to policymakers the importance of investing in mental health resources. That could mean providing rural schools with more funding to hire psychologists and counselors, investing in social-emotional learning, and providing staff with better access to care through benefits and on-site resources.
“We’ve always had this need in rural schools, and all schools,” said Karen Eppley, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and one of the authors of the report. “We are now almost four years post-COVID and it’s time to start acting on some of the lessons that we learned from COVID, particularly around the importance of supporting our children and teachers’ mental health.”
Academics impacted by equity gaps
The report also highlighted areas where rural students outpaced their non-rural peers. For example, rural students had a higher graduation rate—89.8 percent—than non-rural students (87.2 percent) in the 2019-20 school year, according to the report.
In some states, including Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, and Rhode Island, rural students had graduation rates that were at least 5 percentage points higher than those of non-rural students.
Rural schools also showed smaller achievement gaps between students living in poverty and those who weren’t.
Across all schools, students in poverty scored 27 points lower than their peers on the 8th-grade NAEP math assessment and 22 points lower in reading.
But in rural schools, students living in poverty scored 22 points lower in math and 18 points lower in reading. The report didn’t speculate as to why those gaps were smaller among rural students, but it did find that states that had lower average teacher pay and lacked funding formulas that distributed resources more equitably among rural and non-rural schools had larger achievement gaps between students in poverty and their peers.
Rural schools in Arizona, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Texas were the closest to closing those gaps on the reading exam, and schools in Arizona, Hawaii, Oklahoma, and West Virginia were the closest to closing the gaps in math.
But rural schools have a hard time providing equitable academic opportunities to students of different races and ethnicities. The report showed that Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs at rural schools.
Seventeen percent of rural students identify as Hispanic and 10.6 percent identify as Black, but only 9.1 percent of the rural gifted-and-talented population is Hispanic while 5.2 percent is Black, according to the report.
Meanwhile, white students account for 64.8 percent of rural students, but 77.4 percent of rural students in gifted and talented programs, according to the report.
The racial disparities are similar to the gifted and talented population in the nation as a whole. Research has shown that Black and Hispanic students are consistently underrepresented in gifted programs, with Black students—who make up 15 percent of U.S. public school students—accounting for less than 10 percent of students in gifted education programs.
And while 50 percent of gifted students at rural schools are girls, indicating that rural schools tend to have equitable gender representation in those programs, girls remain underrepresented in gifted and talented programs for math, the report said.
Where policy could help rural schools
The report is meant as a guide for both state and federal policymakers when deciding on laws that would affect rural schools, its authors said. Policymakers could make a major difference by passing more equitable funding laws, for example, so schools aren’t put at a disadvantage when they have small property tax bases to draw on to fund their budgets, they said.
In the past four years, the amount of state education funding sent to rural schools for every dollar of local funding they raise from property taxes has dropped in 27 states.
At the same time, rural schools face higher costs on the operations side, particularly for transportation. Rural schools spend $11.09 on instruction for every dollar spent on transportation while non-rural districts spend $14.93 on instruction for every dollar spent on transportation, according to the report.
And while teachers in rural districts make more on average—$76,375—than they did in the 2019 report, their pay still falls well short of the $81,645 average for non-rural districts, the report said.
Rural schools will only be able to reach funding and teacher pay equity with non-rural schools with policymakers’ support, the authors said. Proposals to cut funding, such as a spending package proposed by Republicans in the U.S. House that would cut the federal Title I program for low-income schools by 80 percent, would only serve to hurt rural schools, the researchers said.
“When funding from [the federal government] is diminished or decreased, what that’s going to do is make the existing inequities that come from state and local funding even more egregious because you don’t have federal dollars to follow extreme need and try to mediate those,” said Jerry Johnson, a rural education professor at East Carolina University and report author. “Reductions in Title I funding will make everything in this report that is tied to state and local funding worse because it’s not adding anything.”