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Country Secretary, City Secretary

By Alyson Klein — August 12, 2009 1 min read
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So this week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a former big city superintendent, is headed up to Alaska as part of a cabinet-level push to connect with rural states.

The tour has been going on all summer, but the Last Frontier is Duncan’s first stop.

The trip is part of a larger effort to reach out to rural America, but the education emphasis may be coming just in time to soothe some friction between rural schools and the administration.

For instance, on a call last week, one rural official said he thought the competitive grant programs created under the economic stimulus program penalized rural districts, which are unlikely to be able to find private partners to provide the “matching” funds that could be required under the Innovation grant program, which is meant to reward districts. (Department officials encouraged him to apply and said they would work with rural districts to help them figure out how to meet the criteria, which haven’t been released yet).

And this commentary, published last month in Rural Policy Matters, the magazine of the Rural School and Community Trust, ponders whether Duncan and other cabinet officials on the tour are actually just trying to help Democratic incumbents who are likely to face tough re-election battles (like Rep. Larry Kissell of North Carolina, a former high school social studies teacher who ran on an anti-NCLB platform).

The stop in Kissell’s district, which will focus on education, could be beneficial “only if the Secretary will listen rather that preach two of his favorite turnaround solutions: charter schools and paying teachers according to the test scores of their students,” the commentary

And it continues:

If participants in the Rural Tour listen well during the rural education stop in Hamlet, North Carolina they will hear that rural poverty can’t be overcome by labeling schools failures, that schools can’t hang on to poorly paid teachers by bullying them to improve test scores, and that fiscally starved traditional public schools can’t get better by sending their funds to charters.

That sounds like a direct rebuttal of Duncan’s EdWeek commentary, in which he wrote that, “Rural schools shouldn’t let their unique challenges become excuses for keeping the status quo.” That may have rankled some folks.

Andy Rotherham, of Eduwonk fame, predicted a few months ago that the rural/urban divide could pop up in education policy debates.

What do you think? Major tensions with the rural community, or just the usual back-and-forth between the feds and the states? And, if there is an issue here, can the tour make a difference?

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