School & District Management

The State of Rural Schools, in Charts: Funding, Graduation Rates, Performance, and More

By Libby Stanford — November 20, 2023 5 min read
In this Aug. 13, 2014, file photo, a student prepares to leave the Enterprise Attendance Center school southeast of Brookhaven Miss. The federal government has decided to delay changing the way it determines funding for rural education after a bipartisan group of lawmakers said the move would hurt hundreds of schools.
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Rural schools face the same crises in learning loss and mental health as the rest of the nation, but have fewer resources to respond to them, a recent report from the National Rural Education Association found.

The report, released Nov. 16, pulled together data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau to chronicle the challenges and successes rural schools have faced since 2019.

While rural schools account for one-third of schools in the nation, their students have less access to school counselors and psychologists, school transportation, and broadband internet, the report said. At the same time, rural students have higher graduation rates than their non-rural peers, and rural schools have smaller achievement gaps between students experiencing poverty and students not in poverty than their non-rural counterparts.

The data should be a wake-up call as policymakers alter funding formulas and make decisions about other resources for rural schools, the report’s authors said during the National Forum to Advance Rural Education in Chattanooga, Tenn., last week.

“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 Bob Klein, who is the chair of the teaching, learning, and foundations department at Eastern Illinois University and one of the authors of the report. “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.”

Here are some highlights from the report on the state of rural schools.

1. Rural schools make up a third of U.S. schools

A common misconception about rural schools is that they account for an insignificant portion of the nation’s school system. Rural schools actually make up a third of the schools in the country, and rural students make up more than 15 percent of the total K-12 population, or over 7 million students, according to the report.

The portion of rural schools varies widely from state to state. South Dakota has the highest number of rural schools with nearly three-quarters of schools in the state located in a place classified by the U.S. Census as rural. Montana and Vermont each report over 70 percent of their schools being rural. Rural schools account for the smallest portion of schools in New Jersey, with just 8.5 percent of schools in the Garden State located in rural communities.

Rural schools are also growing in diversity. The report, which measures diversity with a “rural diversity index,” found that the likelihood of two randomly selected students being of different races or ethnicities in a rural school is 33.4 percent. In 2019, the last time the report was released, that likelihood was 31.9 percent.

2. Graduation rates are higher among rural students

At an 89.8 percent graduation rate for the 2019-20 school year, rural schools had more students complete high school on average than non-rural schools in the 2023 report. Rural students graduated at higher rates than their non-rural peers in 34 of the 46 states that had data available, according to the report.

In Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, and Rhode Island, rural students graduated at a rate that was at least 5 percentage points higher than non-rural peers.

However, in Arizona and Alaska, rural students had graduation rates that were more than 3 percentage points lower than their non-rural peers, the report said. In Alaska, the rate was 10.6 points lower for rural students than non-rural students, meaning an additional 200 to 250 rural Alaskan students would’ve graduated that year if the rate was equivalent.

3. The socioeconomic achievement gap is smaller in rural schools

As with the nation as a whole, the pandemic caused a massive disruption to student learning in rural schools. The difference between rural and non-rural scores on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress exams in 4th and 8th grade math and readingwas negligible, according to the report.

However, rural schools did manage to have smaller achievement gaps between students experiencing poverty and their more advantaged peers in the 2022 8th grade reading and math tests. In rural schools, there was a 22-point difference in NAEP math scores between students in poverty and students not experiencing poverty and an 18-point difference in reading scores. Those differences were higher in non-rural schools; students in poverty scored on average 27 points lower in reading and 22 points lower in math than the students not experiencing poverty.

The report didn’t explore the reasoning behind the disparity in differences, but it did point out that states with less equitable funding formulas for rural and non-rural schools, such as Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, Nevada, and Virginia, had higher gaps in reading achievement between students in poverty and their peers.

4. Rural school funding is inequitable in most states

In the 2018-19 school year, the last year before the pandemic, states on average gave 16.2 percent of total education funding for local districts to rural schools. That number varies quite a bit depending on the state and its funding formula.

Some states, including Maine, Mississippi, and Vermont, allocated half of the state education funding it gives to local schools to rural schools. In Vermont, where rural schools receive 51 percent of funding and account for 71 percent of all schools, rural districts receive $15.30 from the state for every dollar the local government spends on schools.

California, Nevada, and Rhode Island devote the smallest percentage of education funds to rural schools. Less than 5 percent of total funding in those states goes to rural schools.

5. Mental health support is a major challenge

Where rural schools struggle the most to compete with their non-rural counterparts is in hiring school counselors and psychologists.

310:1  is the ratio of students to every school counselor or psychologist at rural schools.

295:1  is the ratio of students to every school counselor or psychologist at non-rural schools.

There are fewer psychologists and counselors in rural communities as a whole, the authors of the report said, and that means rural schools have a greater challenge in getting their students the help they need. Rural school leaders have said it’s nearly impossible to staff school psychologist and counselor positions without the support of a community health clinic or organization.

Policymakers should look for ways to recruit more mental health workers in schools, support social-emotional learning among the youngest students, and provide staff with the support they need for their mental health.

“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.”

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