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Senators to Duncan: Don't Forget Rural Schools

Twenty-two Democratic senators from rural states are telling Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that he should make sure rural schools get a fair shot at all that competitive grant money the department is seeking in its fiscal year 2011 budget request.

The senators hail from largely rural states, many of which are considered "red" or "swing" states in presidential elections, including Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

You can read the full letter here, but the important point is that the senators appear especially concerned that some of the department's policy prescriptions (like charters and even extended-day programs) just don't work in really remote areas that have trouble supporting even one school. Instead, they're urging the department to check out other options, such as distance learning, that have a better shot of having an impact in rural communities.

Rural districts have often expressed concerns about the department's push for more competitive funding. They say that rural schools just don't have as much capacity as urban and suburban districts to go after competitive grants. The letter suggests that the department provide technical support to help rural schools better compete.

And it suggests that the department establish an Office of Rural Education, to help look at policies from the standpoint of rural districts.

The department has received the letter, and officials say they're aware of these issues and are working on ways to make sure rural schools are included.

"Arne continues to seek the advice of rural school superintendents, principals, teachers, and students in order to create a balanced national education plan," said John White, a spokesman for the Department of Education, in an e-mail.

He said that the department's push to include more discretionary funding hasn't lead to a major decrease in formula funds (the administration's budget proposal calls for about 2 percent less in formula funding than last year, he said). And he said that that the department will look for ways to help rural district compete for funds (for instance, the proposed rules for the $650 million Investing in Innovation Grants include a special priority for rural schools).

Also, Duncan in the past year has visited nearly all 50 states and came back with the knowledge that rural schools face a unique set of challenges. And he has met at least twice with rural superintendents (at least one conference call and one in-person meeting) to get a sense of their concerns so that the department's solutions aren't one-size-fits-all.

Rural advocates: Do you see this reflected in the department's policy so far? Do you think we'll have a better sense when we see how many rural schools get competitive grants?

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