Standards Opinion

Urban, Rural Schools Connected by Inequality

By Guest Blogger — May 27, 2014 5 min read
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Author and advocate Mike Klonsky again writes to Deborah Meier today. The two are currently co-blogging on Bridging Differences.


In last week’s post, you write, “we’ve both avoided looking at the picture as it plays out in smaller towns and rural areas.” I was considering your points on urban/rural this week, after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ powerful and compelling piece “The Case for Reparations” in the June issue of The Atlantic. It’s a narrative that can lead only to the conclusion that educational inequity is tightly bound up with the legacy of Southern slavery (America’s original sin?), Jim Crow, and then Northern urban racial discrimination in education and housing.

Coates makes the case for reparations, saying:

“An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. ... More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”

I agree. This statement parallels in many respects the 2006 AERA convention speech given by education scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings. In this speech, titled “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools,” Ladson-Billings called for dumping the term “achievement gap,” which unfairly portrays black and Latino students as “defective and lacking,” while penalizing them and their school for “low performance” on tests. She suggested the term “education debt,” moving to a discourse that holds our society accountable for the public education of all our children—not just our own or the ones we’re paid to teach.

There’s no avoiding rural school issues. If I tend to focus more these days on the struggles in urban and suburban education, it’s because that’s where I live, teach, and do my research.

But urbanites are not the only ones pushing back against the corporate “reformers.” We can’t minimize the importance of rural community struggles, which are closely tied to events in the cities. In urban, suburban, and rural school districts alike, issues of poverty and social inequality continue to drive school policies, curriculum decisions, and results.

You say that “choice and community partnerships are easier to work together in dense urban areas.” I don’t know how you can, or why you would want to judge one area to be “easier” than another when it comes to creating partnerships. Neither is easy going and both face similar challenges. Activists and organizers in each have to start with a concrete analysis of existing conditions.

One of the most dynamic and impressive movements I’ve seen in the past year is based in North Carolina’s rural and urban areas. The Moral Mondays movement represents a gigantic statewide coalition initiated by the NC NAACP and its state president, Rev. Dr. William Barber II. It is supported by a broad network of educational, civic, faith-based, labor, and charitable groups across the state. The protests have focused defending the victories of the civil rights movement, especially with respect to voting rights and education as well as to health care, food stamps, women’s rights, and much more. This wide and deep statewide movement has sprung up in the small towns, urban centers, and rural counties and in all cases is led by the state’s largest and oldest civil rights organization.

Endorsed by the AFT and NEA, the movement opposes attempts by corporate “reformers” to impose punitive school reform policies like closing or privatizing schools, and rating teachers according to students’ test scores. As far as I can tell, Rev. Barber and other movement leaders have sidestepped the common core issue to protect the unity of the movement.

Reminiscent of the ‘60s civil rights movement, “Moral Mondays” has brought tens of thousands to mass rallies with more than a thousand arrested for acts of civil disobedience. Urban organizers and union activists would do well to learn from their tactics.

I’m sure you remember how important the issue of saving rural schools became during our work in the small-schools movement. Small rural schools, which often served as community anchors, were (are) being closed by the hundreds, with thousands of students being forced to ride the school bus, sometimes for hours each day, to their new consolidated big schools.

This loss of a sense of community was the topic of an excellent piece (in which you are cited), by Mary Bushnell, “Imagining Rural Life: Schooling as a Sense of Place.” I also recall the work of researchers like Craig and Aimee Howley and others at the Rural School and Community Trust.

The rural South and Appalachia still have the highest concentrations of poverty which correlate directly with what Arne Duncan would call “failing schools.” While more than 16 million children in the U.S. —22 percent of all children—live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, the greatest concentrations of child poverty are in places like rural Mississippi and Texas. Mississippi lags behind all other 49 states when it comes to K-12 achievement. And, this article in the Hechinger Report compares Mississippi’s alarming child-poverty rate with international poverty data.

And if you want to see another valiant rural struggle to save and transform public education, take a look at McDowell County, on the southernmost fringe of West Virginia. What was once a thriving coal-mining community is now among the most disadvantaged areas in the United States. Poverty and unemployment are widespread, schools are struggling, health problems are pervasive, and as AFT President Randi Weingarten writes, “hope is sorely tested.”

The AFT, along with other labor and community organizations, is engaged in a life-or-death struggle to address the challenges confronting impoverished rural families and schools.

The rural South and Southwest are areas where unions (especially teachers’ unions) are the weakest and most difficult to organize. Many, including North Carolina, are in so-called right-to-work states. That is a factor that could and does hamper the struggle to save public education.

So I’ll give you that one. But keep your eye on Moral Monday and North Carolina.

With only a week left until we break for the summer, I’ll take your lead in how to wind down our give and take. I also look forward to exchanging summer reading lists with you.

‘Til next week,


Michael Klonsky teaches in the College of Education at DePaul University. He is the co-founder and director of the Small Schools Workshop and is a co-author of Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society. He blogs daily at Mike Klonsky’s SmallTalk Blog, at //michaelklonsky.blogspot.com/. You can follow him on Twitter @mikeklonsky.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.