Karen Smith traveled 1,000 miles from her job as an elementary school principal in Evening Shade, Ark., to let members of Congress know last week that rural educators are worried about President Bush’s proposed budget cuts for education, and that rural schools need more attention.
It was just another day on Capitol Hill for the senators and representatives who greeted Ms. Smith and other members of the National Rural Education Association on March 14.
But it was a big day for rural education.
While such a day of lobbying is standard for more powerful organizations such as the National Education Association and National School Boards Association, this is only the NREA’s second year of making visits to federal lawmakers.
The meetings here are part of a plan to raise the profile of rural schools in national education policymaking, said Bob Mooneyham, the executive director of the NREA, based at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
Ms. Smith was part of a five-person delegation that met with Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., to give the senator an NREA Hero Award for service to rural education. Such awards are a common way for organizations to thank friendly lawmakers and push for the groups’ causes in Washington.
Sen. Lincoln has helped fight federal attempts to cut funding for rural schools, said Jimmy Cunningham, the president of the Arkansas Rural Education Association and the superintendent of the 900-student Danville, Ark., district. He was one of the educators who met with the senator.
The NREA also awarded a Hero Award this year to Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., for his legislative support. Rep. Upton accepted his clear glass plaque from the NREA during its Washington policy forum on March 13.
Among the NREA’s national policy goals is a breakout of scores for rural schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which practitioners could use to help improve student achievement and show the value of smaller schools, Mr. Mooneyham said.
“We do it for urban schools, but we’ve never done it for rural schools,” he told Sen. Lincoln as she took a break from a Senate Finance Committee meeting.
The NREA also is concerned about the Bush administration’s proposed elimination of funding for the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Program.
“How can we expand our [vocational] programs without more money to support them?” Mr. Cunningham said. “The federal government needs to recognize those programs are important.”
Other major legislative goals of the NREA include: more funding for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; continuation of the federal E-rate program of discounted telecommunications for schools, which helps pay for distance-learning classes; and maximum flexibility for rural teachers and schools under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Sen. Lincoln promised her constituents that she was on their side, noting that she had attended a rural school herself growing up in Arkansas. “It’s a difficult way of life,” she said of rural settings.
She also pointed out that she’s a parent of public school students right now, with twin boys in the Arlington, Va., school district, just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital.
The senator added in an interview that she opposes President Bush’s proposed budget cuts for K-12 education, including the elimination of funding for the Perkins program, cuts to Pell Grants for college students, and to other programs that help low-income families send their children to college.
She spoke of her concerns that the United States be able to remain competitive as China and India gain ground economically, and she noted that states such as Arkansas graduate only a relative handful of math and science teachers each year.
“How in the world can we remain the greatest nation on Earth unless we give our children the tools they need to succeed?” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Rural Educators Step Up Capitol Hill Lobbying Efforts