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Rural America Gets Attention in Trump Era, But Will Its Schools Benefit?

Rural communities and small towns have gained new political currency since the election of President Donald Trump, but the public schools in those areas lag in equitable funding, early childhood education programs, and career and workforce readiness.

A new report released Wednesday by the Washington-based Rural School and Community Trust highlights the challenges that rural schools and districts continue to face, even as many of their students, on average, do as well on some national academic tests as their peers in more resourced suburban communities. 

"While some rural schools thrive, far too many rural students face nothing less than a national emergency," Robert Mahaffey, the executive director of the Washington-based Rural School and Community Trust, said in a statement at the release of the report, "Why Rural Matters 2015-2016: Understanding the Changing Landscape."  "Many rural schools and districts face vastly inequitable funding and simply cannot provide the opportunities that many suburban and urban schools do."

Among the findings: 

  • Nationally, states directed an average of 16.9 percent of education funds to rural districts. (This percentage does not include money for capital construction and debt service.) Comparatively, urban districts received about 29.2 percent and suburban districts about 41.4 percent of state funds. But rural districts often have to spend huge sums on transportation, diverting scarce resources away from the classroom and from teacher-development programs. Rural districts also often lack the local tax base to make up the difference in funding, said Daniel Showalter, a professor at Eastern Mennonite University and a co-author of the report.   
  • On average, rural districts spent about $10.36 on instruction for every dollar that went toward transportation—a far wider gap than urban and suburban districts. On average, urban and suburban districts are able to put more toward instruction for every dollar they spent on transportation.  Urban districts spent $16.04 on instruction for every dollar they spent on transportation, while suburban districts spent $13.49 on instruction for every dollar they spent on transportation, according to Showalter.
  • The national average per-pupil spending for rural students was $6,067. That percentage varied from state to state, from $4,336 in Idaho to $11,585 in New York, according to the report. Nationally, per pupil spending averaged around  $10,763 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census, with wide variations in between.
  • Early childhood programs continue to be needed. South Dakota, Nevada, Alaska, Mississippi, and Arizona, for example, enrolled 6 percent of fewer of eligible pre-schoolers in pre-school programs.
  • Many rural communities were experiencing high rates of poverty, at a rate of 28.7 percent in 2016 for children under six years old, compared to 23.1 percent of children of the same age in urban communities, according to the report. Many impoverished rural communities face what the report called "child care deserts"—areas with limited access to reliable childcare.

"Why Rural Matters 2015-2016: Understanding the Changing Landscape,"  the eighth such report by the Rural School and Community Trust, highlights the state of rural education across all 50 states. 

Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, and South Dakota are among the top states where rural education is in critical need of attention, the report said. Those five states, along with Georgia, Nevada, Florida, Oklahoma, and Alaska round out the 10 "highest priority" states for rural education—meaning that the states ranked high among the five "gauges" used to analyze the state of rural education.

The researchers took into account things like student performance on national tests, graduation rates, state education spending, students taking the ACT, SAT, and Advanced Placement classes, and the demographic makeup of the rural student enrollment, including poverty levels, English-learner status, and students with disabilities.

This is the first year that the report has included college readiness, and, like the last report in 2013-14, it includes an emphasis on early-childhood programs.

Although the ranking system has changed somewhat since the last report in 2014, some of the states at the top of the list in the current publication—including Mississippi, Alabama, Arizona, and South Carolina—were also high-priority states in the last report.

These states "float to the top not just because they have lots of challenges, but because they have compounding challenges, in the sense that the poorest states, in terms of the income level of students and their families, also have the lowest levels of funding for their schools," said Jerry Johnson, the director of the Institute for the Advancement of Research, Innovation and Practice in Rural Education at the University of Central Florida and a co-author of the report. "So the kids who start school with the greatest challenges, by and large, receive the least in terms of what should be done to level the playing field. That exacerbates the challenges." 

Those challenges may persist because the affected communities often lack the social and political capital to influence policymakers, he said.  

"We continue to see that rural matters, we continue to see that the challenges are pressing, and we continue to see that policymakers have been largely ineffective in addressing those challenges," Johnson said.

Rural Schools by the Numbers

Nearly 9 million—or about 19 percent of U.S. students—attend rural public schools, according to the report. Twenty-five percent of rural students identify as being non-white, but in a state like New Mexico, that share is much higher at 86 percent.

Nationally, nearly half of rural students are eligible for federal free and reduced meals programs, and their mobility rate—children who moved in the previous 12 months—is 11 percent. Nevada topped the list with a 17 percent mobility rate for its rural students. (See Education Week's story in this week's issue on student mobility.)

  • Twenty-nine percent of schools are classified as rural, ranging from a low of 5.5 percent in Massachusetts to nearly 74 percent in Montana.
  • Half of the country's rural students are in 10 states: Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Alabama, Indiana, and Michigan. 
  • Nationally, 3.5 percent of rural students are English-language learners. In New Mexico, 24 percent of rural students are English-learners.
  • Rural students, on average, tend to score near suburban students on national tests. In 2013, the average score in math for rural 4th graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress was 243, compared with 244 for suburban students and 236 for urban students, according to the report. In 2011, rural students' average scores were higher in 8th grade science than those of students in urban, town, and suburban districts.

Rural students in New Mexico, Mississippi, Alabama, Hawaii, and Louisiana—areas with extremely high rates of poverty—had among the lowest NAEP scores for rural students at the grade levels and subject areas tested, the report said. 

The overall graduation rate for rural students is 87 percent, while the rate for rural students who are not white is 77 percent. Nationally, the graduation rate is 83 percent.

Decline in Rural Students? 

It was the first year since the report started that the number of rural students attending districts classified as rural had declined. The dip in the numbers—a difference of about 2.7 million students from the last report—was largely related to a change in criteria of what's considered a rural school district after the 2010 census, Showalter said.

The change is expected to have consequences for districts in the future, particularly for those that now receive grants through the Rural Education Achievement Program, or REAP, and will no longer be eligible to receive them.

Mahaffey, of the Rural School and Community Trust, said that districts are not likely to feel the impact immediately. The federal Education Department, he said, had informed his group that it was planning a phase-out strategy over three years for the districts that will no longer be eligible for the grant.

"This is a real concern for us," he said.

The report comes as education, employment, and economic revitalization in rural areas are at the fore of national politics. Small towns and rural communities, particularly in swing states, were pivotal in President Donald Trump's electoral victory.

While the presidential election may have brought greater awareness of rural concerns, there's uncertainty about whether the attention will result in tangible improvements in rural communities. It's unclear how President Trump's priorities around vouchers and charters will affect rural schools and how changes in ESSA will similarly play out in rural districts under the current administration. Trump's proposed education budget, for example, calls for slashing some programs that rural educators rely on, including Title II Part A funds for teacher and school-leader development. And other changes, including things like eliminating the position of the undersecretary for rural development, are also causing worry, Mahaffey said. 

(Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has said that a reorganization at the USDA will elevate rural concerns, with the assistant to the secretary for rural development reporting directly to him.)

"It's alarming that a lot of budget priorities that have been outlined by the administration do not take into account the very deleterious impact they will have on rural communities, and schools, and job creation," Mahaffey said. "That's not a partisan statement. We don't care so much if it's Republican or Democrat...as long as they have children and families and communities as a priority and an interest."

That interest should not be at the expense of urban and suburban districts, he said.

"But we know that the impacts on rural places can be exponentially more severe because of the lack of resources or distance or transportation," he said.

Image source: Why Rural Matters 2015-2016: Understanding the Changing Landscape

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