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Study Urges Regional Focus on Rural Schools

By Michelle R. Davis — October 28, 2009 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 5 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the proportion of rural students in some large states.

State and federal programs aimed at helping underprivileged students often miss their mark in high-poverty, rural schools, in part due to inaccurate stereotypes, according to a report on rural schools released today by a national research and advocacy group.

The report, by the Rural School and Community Trust, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit organization, also finds that a regional approach—instead of a statewide approach—might be the best way to make improvements in high-poverty, rural school districts.

Nearly 10 million students in the United States attend school in a rural district, or about 19 percent of the nation’s total public school enrollment, according to the report.

The information collected in the report should dispel the notion that only a few students attend rural schools and that they are overwhelmingly white, said Jerry D. Johnson, a policy research and analysis manager at the Rural School and Community Trust.

“It’s not uncommon for people to carry in their head a picture of a rural student as a white kid on a farm in Iowa,” Mr. Johnson said. “The reality is that the rural student population is incredibly diverse, and in some places, rural student populations are incredibly economically disadvantaged.”

Overshadowed by Urban Problems?

The study is the fifth in a biennial series and considers factors including graduation rates and test scores, state policies, racial makeup, and expenditures per pupil to examine how rural school districts and the students who attend them are faring.

For the first time, the researchers pinpointed and compared the school districts in each state facing the most dramatic challenges.

The report found that, on a per-pupil basis, six states spend less in comparison with other other states on teaching and learning for their most challenged, rural school districts. Specifically, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee spent less than $4,500 per rural pupil in the 2006-07 school year for instruction, while New York state spent more than $9,000.

“Low spending among these districts represents an especially serious threat, as schools serving large populations of impoverished students require additional resources to level the playing field,” the report said.

Some findings may surprise policymakers, said Marty Strange, the organization’s policy director. The report found that several states with high numbers of students attending urban schools also have a significant number of students attending rural schools, the report found.

For example, California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas together have over 2.2 million rural students, about a quarter of all rural students in the country. However, those same students make up a much lower proportion of students in those states than do rural students for the nation as a whole.

“The dilemma for people who are concerned about education, especially in high-poverty areas, is that the states with a large number of rural students are generally the same states that have even larger numbers of students in urban populations,” Mr. Strange. “That’s a political tragedy.”

He said policymakers often focus on the large number of issues facing students in urban settings, overlooking the issues facing rural students. “Because the urban problems in some of those states are seemingly so intractable, the rural problems don’t get noticed,” he said.

And, in a seeming contradiction, the funding challenges facing predominantly rural states may actually put them at a disadvantage when it comes to an important source of federal aid, Title I payments.

Title I payments to districts are in part based on per-pupil spending numbers, Mr. Strange said. But a third of the students in the poorest 10 percent of rural districts in the country are in states where the per-pupil spending is so low that even federal Title I program payouts, designed to assist economically disadvantaged students, have limited effect.

“In a state like South Carolina, your per-pupil Title I funding is much lower than in a high-spending state like New Jersey,” despite the fact that rural students in the southern state may need more assistance, Mr. Strange said.

Alan Richard, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, said lawmakers are slowly realizing that both urban and rural school districts have a lot in common.

“There’s a lot of attention in our states these days to improving high school graduation rates, and boosting students’ college and career readiness, for example,” he said. “Those are issues that transcend geography and reach into rural and urban areas.”

Unique Challenges

Geography does play a critical role in rural school districts, the report found. Rural districts are typically spread over an entire county and students may have to spend hours riding the bus. Those commutes can have a direct impact on achievement and quality of education, Mr. Johnson said.

Nationally, rural school districts spend about $11.30 on instruction for every dollar spent on transportation, but significant variation exists among states. For example, the report found that West Virginia spends only $7.15 on instruction for every transportation dollar spent, while Alaska spends $23.59 on instruction for every transportation dollar.

The report found “that the burden of paying for long-distance transportation shifts money away from instruction,” Mr. Johnson said.

Some solutions can be found, researchers said, in looking at rural school districts regionally rather than on a state-by-state basis.

The report features a map highlighting 900 of the highest-poverty, rural school districts in the country and grouping them regionally, instead of by state. The districts were grouped into seven regions, identified by shared economic and natural histories or by racial and ethnic populations.

The federal government, in particular, should consider strategies that focus on geocultural regions rather than state lines, Mr. Strange said.

As an example, he cited programs that seek to “grow local teachers” who will understand unique challenges of a particular area. That doesn’t mean that a teacher from Arkansas should be limited to teaching in state schools, however. A teacher from the broader Mississippi Delta region might work just as well in northwestern Louisiana, Mr. Strange said.

Mr. Richard said officials at the SREB have put together the kinds of working groups that are targeting regional areas which share cultural issues. For example, he said, state and federal lawmakers from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee are working together on a “Delta Improvement Project” to boost education, economic development, and work training.

A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as Study Urges Regional Focus on Rural Schools

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