In the months between the November election and the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, it has become clear to many that something is happening in this country that the media and pollsters missed. The post-mortem media coverage of this election has been about lots of things: racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and political correctness. But this coverage has also delved into the key issues missed in the preceding months: the critical importance of education and rural America.
Demographic data from exit polls indicated the 2016 electorate was fundamentally different from those of the past two decades. Nationwide, rural voters make up less than 20 percent of the electorate. Yet in this election, unusually high numbers of white, working-class rural voters turned out in the Rust Belt and Midwest, upending Hillary Clinton’s perceived “firewall” of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania in favor of Trump.
Much has been made of the low educational attainment of rural Trump supporters. Many even view it as the source of support for Trump. Education, as a result, has been touted as the solution to perceptions of an uninformed citizenry by many who look to public schooling as the great hope of our democracy. From their perspective, education is an opportunity to invite young people to cherish the values and skills that will make a democracy thrive, including an appreciation of diversity, the ability to listen, the vocabulary to articulate one’s own viewpoint, and the confidence to voice one’s opinion.
However, we argue the exit polls from the election implicate education as part of a problem in our divided country. In short, the results demonstrate evidence of a country uninterested in addressing the fundamental co-optation of schooling in rural America in the service of the global economy, rather than in building local capacity and well-being.
When young people in rural places finish high school, their options are often simple: stay and work in whatever industry or business is locally available, or leave to pursue higher education or other types of work. For generations, when manufacturing supported entire communities, logging and fishing industries boomed, and family farming dominated the landscape, young people had multiple opportunities to stay in their thriving rural communities. Students who were able to go to college might return, if they chose, to open small businesses or work in upper management. However, as the economic vitality of these communities has slowly—or in some cases, quite abruptly—declined, the opportunities for educated young people to return to their communities has also declined.
Rural public schools have simply become engines of exodus."
The result is that instead of providing a pathway for youths to go out of their communities and potentially return with a knowledge base of new experiences, rural public schools have simply become engines of exodus, educating students for labor markets and communities located elsewhere. Educated young people, for the most part, leave rural places and, even if they want to, cannot return. The phenomenon is so common that it has a name: rural brain drain.
Research suggests that many rural young people with the means to go experience great ambivalence about the decision to go to college. And it is the students who cannot pursue further education who remain to cobble together work in local economies where full-time, living-wage work is often difficult to find.
Therein lies the paradox. One might argue that if schools can provide college and career readiness for all—the rallying cry of contemporary educational reform—then the rural student can be prepared for whatever opportunities are available in our changing global economy. But fewer and fewer of those opportunities are located in rural places. And the opportunities that do exist in rural places may not require any education at all.
A college degree in rural America is now synonymous with leaving and having no way to sustainably come back. “We spend a lot of money to educate our kids, and then they move elsewhere,” one rural leader told us. “The joke is, ‘We dare you to make a living here.’”
And yet, there are solutions, beginning with greater attention to and investment in rural America.
Many researchers in rural education argue that rural schools themselves can be drivers of economic development. Entrepreneurial thinking by educational leaders at the state, school, and district levels can lead to greater opportunities for schools and communities to collaborate on attracting families, retooling local economies, and providing needed skills development to community members.
There is no doubt that citizenship education is important. But where will our newly trained citizens go, having gained an understanding of how to live in concert with others? It is critical that schools work with rural communities, rather than seeing themselves as separate from the cycle of economic decline. Therefore, citizenship education in rural places must teach rural youths to share their voices outside of the voting booth and speak back to policymakers too willing to overlook the ways in which rural communities have been short-changed for decades.
Educational policy continues to remain insensitive to the unique relationships between schooling and community well-being in different contexts. The geographic distribution of educational opportunity remains inequitable—and the great lesson of this election is that we cannot afford to ignore these realities anymore.
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as What the Election Actually Reveals About Rural Education