When Department of Education officials announced last month that they were starting a new Center for Rural Education, some observers were baffled.
It turns out that the center had been around a while.
Beto Gonzalez, the Education Department’s acting assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, announced the rural education center on Dec. 16 at a meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers, held in Tucson, Ariz.
But rural education experts had known about the center and had met with its director, William L. Smith, at several gatherings over the previous six months.
The tardy announcement—punctuated by a press release sent to the national media—made some rural education advocates wonder whether the Education Department was just blowing smoke.
National groups such as the Arlington, Va.-based Rural School and Community Trust and the Norman, Okla.-based National Rural Education Association have criticized the federal department in the past for what they see as a lack of attention to rural issues. (“Federal Efforts Lacking, Rural Advocates Say,” Feb. 2, 2005.)
This time, federal officials say, the government means what it says.
Linda W. Hall, the deputy director of the rural center in the Education Department, blamed the late announcement on a major reorganization of the department’s structure last year. She and other federal officials were working hard to more fully understand rural education issues and to use that knowledge in making policy decisions, she said.
“We want to be able to present a voice to represent rural education in the department,” said Ms. Hall, who grew up in rural King and Queen County, Va.
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is spearheading a renewed focus on rural education at the agency, Ms. Hall added.
The secretary has appointed Mr. Gonzalez to lead a rural education task force, which met for the first time in October. This month, the task force will begin work to help offices throughout the Education Department improve their attention to rural issues, said Ms. Hall, the task force’s executive director.
The rural education center is holding focus groups with educators from rural America to help produce a new Condition of Education in Rural Schools report by early 2007, among other work, Ms. Hall said. The report hasn’t been revised in more than a decade.