School & District Management

Rural Schools See Problems Meeting ESEA Rules

By Alan Richard — March 13, 2002 7 min read
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The schools where DeeEl Stapley works, scattered across Utah’s mountain passes and high and dry plains, have little in common with their urban and suburban cousins around the country.

Students travel long distances to small schools in the countryside. The labor pool is shallow, the tax base thin. Rural schools’ character differs from that of schools found in larger population centers, and rural schools face their own challenges.

The “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, the sweeping federal education law President Bush signed in January, will bring new money to rural schools, and more ways to use the money. It requires rural schools, and all others, to get better.

But the new law, a revised version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, will likely do little to solve key problems in rural schools, such as difficulties in teacher hiring and training, rural school experts say. Rural educators like Mr. Stapley, a retired superintendent and Utah’s state director of rural schools, say a majority of America’s outpost schools won’t ever be able to meet what the law requires—not without significantly more money and completely new approaches to their problems.

Mr. Stapley gives an example. The new ESEA requires that in four years, all teachers in every school must be “highly qualified.” Utah has had such a law for years, Mr. Stapley said.

But given the realities of state and local budgets, the necessity for teachers to teach multiple subjects in small schools, and the scarcity of fully credentialed teachers willing to work in remote places, he said, some school leaders have little choice but to fudge their paperwork to comply.

“Superintendents lie,” he said matter-of-factly.

That’s the type of predicament that the new law, with its new sources of money and rules for how to use it, fails to address for rural educators, many say. Now, even the sudden surge of federal dollars could disappear: President Bush in his 2003 budget proposal recommends that the $162.5 million set aside in fiscal 2002 for the two new rural programs be cut to zero in the coming year. Rural advocates wonder how they can improve their lot, when all they feel is left behind.

A Dead End?

Wyoming state Superintendent of Public Instruction Judy Catchpole had a special request when state schools chiefs gathered in January at Mount Vernon, Va., the home of George Washington, to discuss the revised ESEA with Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

“Carry a soft spot in your heart for small-district states,” she told the secretary, as his agency prepared to turn the ESEA’s broad legislative language into specific rules and regulations.

For rural schools and small school districts, the new law is a mixed blessing, advocates for such schools say.

The extra money will help, of course, as will greater flexibility in how schools use it. The $162.5 million in new money for the current fiscal year will help, they say.

But the ESEA’s new requirements for teacher quality, paraprofessionals, school accountability, and school choice deeply concern rural educators, said Mary Conk, the legislative specialist for rural issues at the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators. Her organization also lobbies Congress on behalf of the National Rural Education Association.

The law requires every public school to provide a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom by 2005-06, which means teachers must be certified or licensed by a state, and must demonstrate competence in the subjects they teach. And the law demands more from paraprofessionals: two years of college training, or the ability to pass a “rigorous” examination developed at the local level.

Richard Thompson, Mississippi’s state schools superintendent, said parts of the law will be difficult to meet for states like his that have a significant percentage of rural districts.

“For the first time at the state level, I’m feeling like the local superintendents are feeling,” he said.

Mississippi struggles already to fill teacher vacancies, especially in its most rural places. Colleges simply don’t produce enough credential-holding candidates to fill the need, Mr. Thompson said.

“We will drastically have to change the way we do business to have a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by ‘05-'06,” he said, adding that “it’s an admirable goal.” Without more pay, better training, and a whole new system designed to support such a goal, Mr. Thompson said it’s unlikely to happen.

In Utah, some of Superintendent Brent M. Thorne’s schools in the 4,500-student Sevier County district have five or six teachers to teach the entire curriculum in grades 7-12. The new law would require his teachers to seek constant certification for the various classes they teach, Mr. Thorne said, and the nearest university is 100 miles away. “It’ll be impossible, or close to impossible” to meet the new requirements, he said.

Bush administration officials say rural districts and others that might be challenged by the new teacher-quality rules will find more money, aside from the new rural grants, to help them. The law provides more money for Title I schools—the flagship federal program for needy children—as well as for a new reading program and more. (“ESEA to Boost Federal Role in Education,” Jan. 9, 2002.)

“I frankly think that our budget is incredibly positive for rural areas,” Deputy Secretary of Education William D. Hansen, a native of rural Idaho, said.

Testing Problems

Rural schools will have other challenges brought on by the new law. Raising test scores high enough to escape federal penalties may be one of the toughest hurdles.

The law essentially takes the type of school accountability laws passed in many states, and makes the approach national. Low-scoring schools that fail to improve student achievement over time, based on annual math and reading exams in grades 3-8, will face sanctions. And the states are empowered to reconstitute school staffs after several years of poor test scores.

Judging rural and smaller schools on test scores alone is a mistake, said Marty Strange, the Randolph, Vt.-based national-policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust.

“Using that data to make financial decisions about the school or how it should be governed is just not responsible,” he said. In a small school, the departure of a gifted student or two, or the arrival of a few non-English-speaking students, for instance, can cause test scores to fluctuate wildly, he said.

Other complications also face rural schools. Providing the staff to administer the new tests will be a new bill for rural schools to pay. Rural districts may need new employees or to divert current workers from other projects to administer the new tests.

And there’s the issue of school choice: The law says districts must allow students to transfer from chronically low-scoring schools. But remote areas offer few choices, if any. And if school choice is available, small-town districts in the South may find it hard to comply with federal desegregation plans if they allow students to choose their own schools, Mr. Thompson of Mississippi said.

The Debate Is Done

President Bush’s proposed budget plan for 2003, unveiled in early February, disappointed some rural educators, since it calls for cutting the new federal money their schools are to receive in the current budget year. Mr. Bush stresses national security in his budget above all else.

“That would clearly be an act of leaving rural children behind,” Ms. Conk of the AASA said of the budget plan.

But Congress may ultimately restore some or all of the rural spending the president recommended dropping.

“We fought very hard to get this funding in the first place, and we’re going to fight very hard to keep it,” said Felicia Knight, a spokeswoman for Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Republican from Maine who serves on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Mr. Hansen, the Department of Education’s No. 2 official, defended the proposed cut. Rural schools, as well as their urban and suburban counterparts, he said, will gain from large increases recommended by Mr. Bush in large programs like Title I and special education.

For rural educators like those Mr. Stapley works with, the funding fight and the unfolding new law feel like more puddles to jump. Mr. Thorne, the Sevier County superintendent, has sought creative ways to improve his schools. But he said he still can’t provide the kind of education he’d like, and he discounts the new federal money’s impact.

“It probably won’t go too far,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer is, totally.”

Dan Langan, Secretary Paige’s spokesman, said that regardless of officials’ worries, it’s time for schools—including those flanked by cotton fields and mountain ranges—to put the ESEA into action.

“This is the law,” Mr. Langan said. “The time for debate for the provisions for the law is now really over.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Rural Schools See Problems Meeting ESEA Rules

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