Rural schools: Growing, [Linguistically] Diverse, and Complicated

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Jan 18 14:04:06 UTC 2008

Rural Schools: Growing, Diverse, and ... Complicated

  This is an issue that's seriously impacting Texas students and
education, as it is one of the twelve states educating more than half
of all "rural" students. Further, Texas is listed as being one of the
top states where rural education isn't a policy focus; California also
making that same list. To read more check out the full report.

By Rachel B. Tompkins | Ed Week
January 16, 2008

In the spring of 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts came to
my hometown of Hinton, W.Va., looking for enough votes to prove that a
Northern liberal urban Catholic candidate could win over Southern
conservative rural Protestant voters. I was the editor of my high
school newspaper and covered the visit. But J.F.K. didn't just stop in
Hinton, a railroad town in decline. He campaigned town to town in West
Virginia for nearly a month.

He expected to see evidence of the economic hardship that was the
central message of his campaign, but what he discovered was rural
poverty so stark it stunned him. He listened to proud, strong people
express their hurt and learned a lot about rural America.

Kennedy won that West Virginia primary, the Democratic nomination, and
the presidency, carrying West Virginia's desperately poor coalfield
counties with as much as 75 percent of the vote.

What would urban or suburban presidential candidates like Hillary
Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama, or Mitt Romney discover about
rural America today by campaigning intensely, as Kennedy did, in a
heavily rural state? If they stopped long enough to listen, especially
in the poorest rural regions, they would find people talking about
today's top poverty issue: education. And they would get an earful.

They would hear complaints about miserly funding systems that keep
rural teacher pay too low to compete with wealthy districts'. They
would hear about highly respected veteran teachers being badgered into
early retirement by silly rules that label them "not highly qualified"
because they teach one course out of field. They would hear about
woeful facilities that let rain in and heat out, tax policies that
saddle the poorest people with the heaviest education tax load,
racially charged discipline practices that put kids on the street
instead of in the classroom, inhumanely long bus rides to consolidated
schools far from home, and irrational curriculum requirements that are
simply unattainable for thinly staffed small schools on lean budgets.

They would hear about the relentless pressure on rural people to
either accept these injustices or be prepared to give up their
schools, and about their anger at being labeled "backward" and "only
interested in their sports teams" just because they are willing to
fight to keep and improve their small schools.

The candidates might begin to doubt the pundits who say that when it
comes to education, "rural" means "white, well-off, withering away,
and wonderfully simple."

They would learn first that rural is certainly not withering away:
Twenty-two percent of U.S. public school students—about 10
million—attend schools in more than 26,000 rural communities, each so
small the entire population wouldn't fill a good symphony hall in one
of our major cities (2,500 people or fewer). And, between 2003 and
2005, rural enrollment increased by 1.4 million—an astounding 15
percent growth rate.

They would learn also that rural is not necessarily white:
Twenty-three percent of rural students are members of minority groups;
minority enrollment grew 55 percent from 1996 to 2005, and nearly half
of all English-language learners are in rural schools.

And they would learn that "well-off" does not define rural either.
Nationwide, the 800 school districts in the poorest rural communities
serve a school-age population of over 950,000 students, and more than
32 percent of them are Title I students. That rate is as high as that
in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, or Philadelphia. Further, students
in these poorest "Rural 800" districts are 26 percent
African-American, 20 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent Native American.

White students also are amply represented in these statistics. In West
Virginia, the poorest rural districts are in the same coalfield
counties that gave Kennedy over 60 percent of their votes in the 1960
general election. Today, all have higher percentages of Title I
students than Philadelphia.

If rural education is not "white," "well-off," or "withering away,"
maybe it is not "wonderfully simple," either.

If presidential candidates and policymakers pay attention, they will
find that many state governments have not served their rural students
well, especially where need is greatest.

In South Carolina, over one-half the rural students qualify for
federally subsidized meals, and 45 percent of rural 9th graders fail
to graduate four years later, yet funding is so meager that rural
schools spend less than $4,200 per pupil on instruction.

In Oklahoma, 57 percent of students qualify for subsidized meals, and
instructional expenditures in rural schools are the lowest in the
nation at less than $3,600 per pupil. Yet the Oklahoma Supreme Court
recently ruled that school funding is a purely political question,
beyond the reach of the courts.

In Arizona, where rural schools on average spend just under $4,000 per
pupil on instruction, the funding inequity between the wealthiest
rural schools and the poorest rural schools is the worst in the
nation. That means the pathetically low average masks the severe
deprivation faced by children in the poorest communities. As in
Oklahoma, however, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled recently that
school funding is not a matter for the courts to judge.

An analysis by the Rural School and Community TrustRequires Adobe
Acrobat Reader reveals that states with the worst rural student
outcomes are those with the most impoverished, minority, and ELL
students in rural schools. They are also the states where rural
schools receive the fewest resources, and where rural students have
been herded into the biggest schools and districts.

The simple reality is that the poorest rural students attend school in
the poorest states—those with the least taxable resources to support
an adequate education. This fact does not relieve such states of their
constitutional duty to provide a quality public education, but it does
underscore the critical nature of federal funding for high-poverty
rural districts. And that is where such districts currently have a big

For the past six years, two of the four formulas used to distribute
federal Title I funds have systematically discriminated against small,
high-poverty school districts. These formulas use student weighting
schemes intended to direct more funding to districts with the highest
concentrations of Title I students, but they allow two alternative
methods of weighting. One gives added weight based on higher
percentages of Title I students in a district. The other gives added
weight based on the number of Title I students in a district. The
alternative giving more weight to a district is the one used to
determine its share of the Title I pie. Larger districts often come
out better under the number-weighting alternative. Small districts
never benefit from number weighting.

As a result, a large district with a lower percentage of Title I
students often receives more Title I funding per pupil than a smaller
district with a higher percentage of Title I students.

Presidential attention and leadership could change this. Congress has
an opportunity to make such a change when it reauthorizes the
Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose latest version is the
6-year-old No Child Left Behind law. To do so would be one small step
toward eradicating the attitude that if it's rural, it really doesn't
matter. It's time to give rural education the attention it deserves,
to recognize the field's poverty, diversity, and complexity, and to
respond to its needs.

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