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Cost of Distance Takes Toll on Schools' Finances, Involvement, Time

A defining characteristic of rural communities is the distance residents must travel each day to get places, a factor that warrants policy considerations for rural schools, according to a rural education advocacy group.

The Rural School and Community Trust looked at the direct and indirect costs of distance for rural schools, and it offered potential solutions to reduce them.

The most obvious of those costs is financial. Rural schools and residents spend a chunk of their budgets on transportation. Schools put more money toward school buses and gas, and they pay a higher delivery cost for other goods and services, according to the rural trust. Traveling far distances can take more time, so commutes can be more lengthy for students and staff.

In addition to those costs, the Rural School and Community Trust says distance can have a powerful effect on participation, with rural students being less likely to participate in curricular and co-curricular activities, as well as after-school programs such as teams or clubs. Families also might be less likely to attend school meetings because of limited time and the cost of gas.

"These indirect costs of distance affect the lifelong prospects of many rural residents, reducing their lifetime earnings, constraining their financial contributions to the larger economy, and sapping the country of the intellectual, creative, and cultural gifts of large portions of our rural sector," according to the rural trust.

The Rural School and Community Trust says budget allocations for rural schools and institutions should account for the added cost of transportation, and offered other solutions to reduce the cost of distance. Those included:

  • Keep institutions as close as possible to where residents live.
  • Invest in high-speed internet and other technologies.
  • Coordinate programs and services to reduce travel requirements.
  • Take programs to communities rather than requiring communities to come to centalized programs.
  • Consider the school bus system a rural public transportation system.
  • Allocate sufficient transportation funding for rural institutions and their patrons.

So which state spends the least on instruction compared to transportation? West Virginia. For every dollar it spends on transportation, it spends $6.92 on instruction. The U.S. average is $11.06, according to the Rural Blog. West Virginia has a consolidated school system, with many counties having only one school for each grade, so bus routes tend to be lengthy, explains the rural trust. The state's mountainous terrain also adds to that cost. Vermont spends the most on instruction compared to transportation, spending $16.62 on instruction for every dollar it spends on transportation.

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