Special Report
School & District Management

Rural Areas Perceive Policy Tilt

By Michele McNeil — August 28, 2009 7 min read
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When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks about using merit pay to attract the best teachers to the classroom, he probably doesn’t have in mind a place like Richmond County, N.C.

In this rural community where the unemployment rate is nearly 14 percent and there’s no movie theater for miles around, school administrators say money isn’t the recruitment tool it is in the big city.

And when Mr. Duncan talks about states’ needing to embrace charter schools to give parents more educational options, he may not be envisioning places like South Dakota or Montana, where half the school districts have just a few hundred students—and little demand for public school alternatives.

Rural school advocates say the federal priorities emerging under Mr. Duncan—a former chief executive officer of the 408,000-student Chicago public school system—favor education improvement ideas that are best suited to urban settings.

Initiatives such as the Race to the Top Fund competition fail to recognize the distinctive problems facing rural districts, which serve some 13 million students, or about one-quarter of the nation’s public school enrollment, according to the Rural School and Community Trust, based in Arlington, Va.

“Both Duncan and [President Barack] Obama are so narrowly focused on inner-city solutions for education challenges,” said South Dakota state Sen. Sandy Jerstad, a Democrat from Sioux Falls and a member of her legislative chamber’s education committee.

George E. Norris - Rural Education Challenges

George E. Norris, the superintendent of the Richmond County (N.C.) School District, talks about the challenges facing rural school districts.

The Obama administration’s push for charter schools is particularly bothersome to Sen. Jerstad and some other advocates for rural education. In South Dakota, more than half the school districts have fewer than 300 students, so rural champions question whether a new school would draw the kind of numbers needed to justify opening it. (In another such state, Montana, half the districts have fewer than 100 students.)

“Charter schools just don’t work for us,” Ms. Jerstad said, “and I hate to see the whole issue of charter schools be a criterion for federal funding.”

No Nationwide Solution

Rural educators stress that approaches such as charter schools that might work for urban districts may not work everywhere.

For example, small districts in isolated areas face big challenges when it comes to teacher and principal recruitment and to professional-development opportunities.

In addition, small districts don’t have the luxury of big central-office staffs and a host of curriculum specialists, which can be especially helpful in turning around low-performing schools—another priority of Secretary Duncan’s. (“Tight Leash Likely on Turnaround Aid,” this issue.)

“A unique challenge is you have to have Jacks- and Jills-of-all-trades in the central office,” said June Atkinson, the North Carolina state superintendent of education. “And you may not be able to have specialists in math and English and other subjects.”

Mr. Duncan’s heavy emphasis on performance-based pay for teachers also ruffles a few feathers. Rural educators note, for instance, that merit pay may not work well for them if peer review is part of the evaluation process—if you’re the only math teacher for 100 miles, who’s going to review you?

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan listens to a question during the rural community forum.

But Mr. Duncan, writing in an Education Week commentary piece, responded to such criticism: “Rural schools shouldn’t let their unique challenges become excuses for keeping the status quo.” That rankled rural educators, too. (“Start Over,” June 17, 2009.)

Those unique challenges can’t be ignored, others argue. “The biggest issues in rural education are getting great teachers, getting great school-based leaders and principals,” said George E. Norris, the superintendent of schools in North Carolina’s Richmond County, whose countywide district, located in the southern part of the state, is so large geographically that school buses travel 6,529 miles a day to transport most of the district’s 8,000 students.

Economic Distress

In Richmond County, residents say, people used to be able to make a good living in the textile mills or working for the railroad with only a high school education or less. But jobs began slowly leaving the area over the past few decades, and now Richmond County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, at nearly 14 percent. Even nascar left town several years back, leaving the county’s famed Rockingham racetrack nearly empty, delivering another economic hit to the area.

Now, graduates of Richmond Senior High School have few choices for jobs—the major employers are the school district, Wal-Mart, and a Perdue Inc. chicken plant.

“Mill work used to be prestigious, but now kids look at their parents collecting federal [unemployment] checks, and they wonder what else is out there for them,” said Cory Satterfield, the principal of Richmond Senior High School.

Secretary Duncan, who has been hopscotching the country on a “listening and learning” tour, has carved out time for stops in rural areas, including an Aug. 17 town hall with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture TomVilsack here in the town of Hamlet.

Members of the community peppered the education secretary with questions, but most of Mr. Duncan’s answers didn’t seem to distinguish the problems of rural districts from those of their urban counterparts.

In response to a question about recruiting teachers for rural areas, Mr. Duncan said: “Whether they’re rural or inner-city urban, I worry tremendously about ... teaching in underserved communities.”

As for recruiting good principals, he said: “It’s not unique to rural communities.”

However, Education Department officials say Mr. Duncan and members of his staff are making a concerted effort to make sure rural education issues are reflected in the department’s policies. Those actions include listening-and-learning meetings in several states, and development of a communications strategy that keeps rural challenges, such as teacher recruitment and retention, at the forefront during policy discussions, officials said.

‘Race to Top’ Concerns

One sore spot: some of the criteria by which states will be judged in the Race to the Top Fund competition.

The $4.35 billion fund, established under the federal economic-stimulus law enacted in February, will provide competitive grants to states for large-scale education improvement efforts. There are 19 criteria by which states will be judged, including whether they have charter schools and teacher merit-pay programs. (“Rich Prize, Restrictive Guidelines,” Aug. 12, 2009.)

But the federal Education Department’s wish to have states and school districts embrace merit-pay plans may not have the desired effect of recruiting and retaining the best teachers, rural educators say.

“It is much harder to recruit here,” said Alva Ezzell, the principal of Monroe Avenue Elementary School, in Hamlet. “Most of the people we could get here are those who had ties to Richmond County. Even if we could offer them something like a signing bonus,they would come, and then they would go.”

Denise Juneau, Montana’s superintendent of schools, in a July 28 letter to Mr. Duncan, formally objected to the federal department’s use of charter schools as one metric by which states will be judged. She pointed out that only 6 percent of her state’s school districts have student populations greater than 500, while 54 percent have enrollments of fewer than 100. The state doesn’t have charter schools, which are publicly funded but largely autonomous.

“Montana’s rural context and economic status has made it challenging for many communities and the state to support the public schools we currently have, much less encourage the duplication of infrastructure a charter school would mean in most communities,” Ms. Juneau wrote in the letter.

But the department points out that whether a state allows charter schools is just one of the Race to the Top criteria and is only a preference on the part of the department, not an absolute requirement. States without charter school laws should still apply for a slice of the grant, said Joanne Weiss, the department’s Race to the Top Fund director.

“There’s nothing in the Race to the Top Fund that would in any way disadvantage states with large rural populations. We expect to see some variations in the types of applications we get and the types of solutions we get,” Ms. Weiss said in an Aug. 20 webinar presentation on edweek.org. “We’re definitely very concerned about helping to make sure rural schools have all of the different tools and supports to improve.”

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Rural Areas Perceive Policy Tilt

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