Opinion
Federal Commentary

Rural Student Success Critical to National Goals

By Marty Strange — August 23, 2011 6 min read

Rural schools are increasingly important to the success of the nation’s educational goals. Rural school enrollment is growing both absolutely and as a percentage of national totals. Between 2004 and 2009, rural schools grew 11 percent, from 10.5 million students to 11.7 million, and the rural share of the nation’s students increased from 22 percent to 24 percent, according to data from the Department of Education.

Rural enrollment is also becoming more diverse. Growth in that period was fastest among students of color, up 31 percent. Today, they constitute 28 percent of rural students.

The highest-poverty rural schools are even more diverse. Fifty-nine percent of students in rural districts ranking in the top 10 percent of poverty are students of color—28 percent African-American, 23 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent Native. Thirty-seven percent are disadvantaged, about the same rate as the poorest inner-city school districts.

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If these high-poverty rural school districts were one district, it would be the largest and among the poorest and most diverse in the nation. But the dispersion of these students in small districts across remote regions makes them largely invisible to education policymakers and interest groups. Invisibility invites neglect. But rural students deserve better, and if we expect to achieve national educational goals, we can no longer afford to neglect them.

What does federal policy have to do to succeed in rural America?

Here is a short list:

Eliminate the discrimination against high-poverty rural and small urban districts in the Title I formula. The formula is intended—but fails—to target more money per pupil to school districts with “high concentrations” of disadvantaged students. A weighting system is used to artificially inflate the eligible-student count in those districts. The flaw in this system is that it mistakes “big” for “concentrated.”

Two weighting systems are used for Title I determinations. One is based on the percentage of disadvantaged students in a district. The other is based on the absolute number, regardless of the percentage they constitute. The problem is that the number-weighting scheme is so mathematically powerful that it simply overwhelms “percentage weighting,” essentially eliminating it.

As a result, funding is driven from small- and moderate-size districts, no matter how high their poverty rates, to large districts, no matter how low their poverty rates. Suburban Fairfax County, Va., with a 6 percent poverty rate, gains funding while rural Robeson County, N.C., with a 41 percent poverty rate, loses and so does urban Flint, Mich. (37 percent); rural Edcouch-Elsa, Texas (61 percent); and urban Rochester, N.Y. (36 percent).

This issue is addressed by the proposed All Children Are Equal Act (HR 2485), or ace, introduced in July by Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., and five Republican and five Democratic co-sponsors. This bill displays a level of bipartisanship that in the current environment is remarkable in itself. ACE would gradually reduce the weight factors used in the number-weighting system by 10 percent a year for four years, weakening without eliminating number-weighting and putting the formula into better balance.

Rural students deserve better, and if we expect to achieve national educational goals, we can no longer afford to neglect them."

Establish a more focused effort to support rural education research and policymaking. The rural education research infrastructure in the United States is abysmal. Among thousands of presentations at the 2011 annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, about 40 addressed a rural issue, and about one-fourth of those focused on other countries. Many of the rest were case studies, not high-quality comparative-design research.

No wonder most of the peer reviewers for the first round of the federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant competition were poorly prepared to evaluate applicants’ claims of bonus points for “unique challenges” associated with high-poverty rural schools. Reviewers even gave the New York City board of education rural bonus points for a program that operates entirely within the city.

The circumstances in rural schools are profoundly different from the circumstances in urban and suburban schools and deserve explicit policy and research consideration. But there is no process within the U.S. Department of Education for considering the impact of proposed or existing education policies on rural students.

To this end, Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., along with 15 co-sponsors, have proposed (in S 946) creating an office of rural education policy within the department. It is badly needed.

If competitive grants are to be used to stimulate innovation and reform, rural schools must be able to compete on a level playing field. Rural districts vary in their capacity to compete. Some have a strong local tax base, a tradition of regional cooperation, access to excellent technical assistance from regional-service agencies or colleges, and suitable in-house technology. But the low-wealth rural districts that federal policy should serve are precisely the districts with the fewest of these assets.

In these districts, the superintendent is often also a principal or a teacher and may even drive the bus. She is likely the only grant writer. These districts lack development-staff capacity. And by definition, small dispersed districts lack the scale that is so often required in competitive-grant guidelines.

Competitive programs should be designed to provide prior supports for interlocal planning and coordination so rural schools can help each other innovate and compete for grants. The Department of Education needs to provide both technical assistance in grant writing and organizational capacity-building. Setting aside funds for a separate rural competition is not really the solution because without these prior supports, the rural regions with greater resources will simply outgun the poorest rural regions.

Toughen the Title I “comparability” requirement. Most districts are required to allocate a disproportionate share of Title I funds to their highest-poverty schools. Districts can be tempted to use that increased federal funding for their poorest schools to cover up an inequitable distribution of state and local funds. The law requires districts to provide their high-poverty schools with state and local revenue that is “comparable” to what the districts provide their lower poverty schools.

For smaller rural districts with only one school at each grade span, comparability is not an issue. But in urban districts and in larger rural districts, which are especially prevalent in high-poverty regions of the South, school-to-school disparities may exist despite the comparability requirement. There are many ways to circumvent it.

Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., and Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., have introduced the Fiscal Fairness Act (HR 1294 and S 701) to prevent some of these abuses, especially the loophole in which actual teacher salaries are not reported on a school-for-school basis. Instead, districtwide average salaries are simply multiplied by the number of teachers in each school. This can mask substantial inequities that result from assigning the least-experienced and most poorly educated teachers with the lowest salaries to schools serving high-poverty populations.

The proposed Fiscal Fairness Act would mandate reporting actual salaries in each school and narrow the allowable spending disparity between high- and low-poverty schools from 10 percent to 3 percent. Educator-leaders complain about more paperwork, but this is a reform whose time has come.

For too long, rural America and its institutions have been treated as nothing more than our society’s agrarian legacy, withering away and wonderfully simple. But the new rural reality is one of change, complexity, and diversity. We cannot afford to continue to neglect rural education.

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as Rural Student Success Critical to National Goals

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