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Advocates: Private Reform Aid Slights Rural Schools

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Rural schools are being left out of pivotal policy changes being tried out in the nation's education system, say some rural advocates, and that goes for reform experiments bankrolled with private dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"The [Gates] Foundation funded work around smaller schools in mostly urban places—a sort of ironic phenomenon, given the consolidation of rural schools. And they funded some early-college initiatives in places like rural Appalachian Ohio," said Caitlin Howley, senior manager, education and research, for ICF International in Charleston, W.Va., an educational research firm. "But I don't think rural is part of what they've been thinking about."

A Washington Post report this week tracked the influence of some $650 million the Gates Foundation has pledged for key reforms in the nation's schools in the past two and one-half years. The story also noted the close relationship between the Gates Foundation and the Obama administration (a number of Gates Foundation employees have assumed key roles in the administration) as well as similarities in the educational priorities pushed by Gates and the Obama White House.

Here's what has turned some rural heads: The bulk of the Gates money, $264 million to pay for pilot reforms in teacher evaluation and performance pay, has gone to large urban school districts. An additional $81 million has gone to charter schools and other initiatives, primarily in urban and suburban school districts.

Many of the issues targeted by Gates Foundation money—effective teaching, for example—clearly cross rural and urban lines. Yet a sharply urban funding emphasis raises a question among advocates: Will the unique challenges faced by the nation's small, rural school districts be left out of the priorities and policies shaped by these privately funded test runs?

"I haven't seen any evidence that they are attending to the particular and abiding challenges or leveraging the special strengths of rural schools and communities," Howley said.

Mil Duncan, the director of the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, agreed but said Gates' urban focus is a matter of scale.

"The Gates Foundation is looking for big impact so they go for big numbers, and it means little resources for rural places," said Duncan, the author of Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America. "I wish there were more resources directed toward rural kids, but I think in the longer run that if these reforms work in urban areas they will affect rural schools," she said. "That's not enough, but it is something."

Marty Strange, policy program director for the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust, sees what he calls an urban tilt in the Gates Foundation's priorities—and the Obama administration's policies—in a different light.

"I think that the problem of both philanthropy and government is that rural America is a lot more diverse and complicated than they think it is and that one size does not fit all," Strange said. "The reality is that when it comes to challenges, when it comes to education, those places do not fit stereotypes. Getting the scale to serve those types of communities is a formidable challenge because you have to serve them one at a time."

Strange is worried the interests of rural school districts are largely absent from current education policy initiatives.

"A lot of the things being pushed as reforms—particularly the focus on competitive grant-making—are simply just not a fit for small, rural school districts, where resources are so constrained and in many cases geographic isolation makes reforms such as charter schools useless," Strange said. "Don't blame the relationship between the [Obama] administration and a foundation; it's just that there are a lot of people in this administration that don't get [what rural schools face]," he said.

John White, deputy secretary for rural outreach for the U.S. Department of Education, said the department is working to feed growth in rural-focused philanthropy and to give rural districts support they need to thrive in a competitive grant-making environment.

"There are people out there [in rural districts] who want to compete, and we are trying to provide the level of support and safeguards so they can compete effectively," White said. "It's not designed to be 'everybody gets a little,' it's designed to be funding for what works."

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