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Urban Education Secretary in Rural Hamlet

By Michele McNeil — August 18, 2009 2 min read

It goes without saying that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who spent his educational career in big-city settings, is not as attuned to the needs of rural districts as the needs of urban ones.

Duncan appeared at a town hall meeting with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (the former Democratic governor of Iowa), in the small town of Hamlet, N.C., which is near the South Carolina border, a good 90 minutes from the nearest big city of Charlotte, and two hours from Raleigh. (And I can say from my experience yesterday that there’s also little on the drive between Raleigh and Hamlet, except for an almost ghost-of-a-racetrack in Rockingham where NASCAR drivers once raced.)

When someone at the forum asked about housing issues facing rural educators, Duncan said he was talking to the Housing and Urban Development agency about what can be done. To which Vilsack amusingly chided his peer that HUD is for urban housing, and that his ag department could actually be a resource for rural housing issues. And the ag secretary also talked about how the promise of broadband Internet access in rural areas can make people feel more connected.

Asked about the challenge in finding good principals for rural schools, Duncan replied that the issue of recruiting and retaining good leaders is not “unique to rural communities.”

But certainly the context is different. School leaders I spoke with from Richmond County Schools, in Hamlet, talked about the difficulty in getting young promising leaders to move to, and stay in, such rural, out-the-way places. (There isn’t even a movie theater in Hamlet, for example.)

And another hot-button education reform issue that Duncan has championed—charter schools—also wouldn’t likely flourish, either, in somewhat remote places where there isn’t a big concentration of students, rural educators say. (No one asked about charter schools during yesterday’s town hall; however, one man did ask about vouchers—to which Duncan talked up charter schools instead.)

I’m told that Duncan’s staff is trying to figure out how to ensure that the rural perspective factors into their policymaking. What’s still unclear is whether contextual factors, such as the rural or urban character of a state, will factor into that all-important $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition.

(Photo: Sen. Richard Burr, left, R-NC, U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, third from left, and Congressman Larry Kissell, right, 8th District NC, listen to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan speak on Aug. 17, during a rural community forum held on the campus of Richmond Community College in Hamlet, N.C.)

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