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Rural Schools Increasingly Diverse, Low-Income

The nation's rural schools are growing in enrollment and serving increasing numbers of low-income, minority, and special education students, according to a new report released Monday.

"Why Rural Matters," the seventh biennial report by the Rural School and Community Trust, examined education, socioeconomic factors, funding, and policy data from each state during the 2010-11 school year.

Nationwide, enrollment in rural schools is growing faster than in non-rural districts, which the report notes has been a consistent trend for years. More than 20 percent of children in the country are enrolled in rural schools, and nearly one-third of all public schools are classified as rural, although percentages vary greatly by state. In Montana, more than 75 percent of all schools are rural, compared to less than 7 percent in Massachusetts.

National Rural Stats Chart.png

Between the 2008-09 and 2010-11 school years, the percentage of rural students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch increased by five percentage points to about 47 percent. During that time, the percentage of rural minority students also increased slightly, from about 26 percent to nearly 27 percent.  

Daniel Showalter, one of the report's researchers, said what's most notable about the increasing enrollment is that minority students account for nearly 93 percent of the total new rural student population. "The white rural population is basically remaining stable," Showalter said. "But the minority population is rapidly expanding."

The authors of the report concluded that these numbers make it even more important for policymakers to pay attention to rural schools and their populations, as well as "what those challenges mean to state and national goals of improving achievement and narrowing achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged groups."

Robert Mahaffey, the spokesman for the Rural School and Community Trust, said it's also important to examine funding formulas, resources, and teacher development as rural schools serve more diverse and low-income students. "When we focus on resources for rural places, we don't just talk about money," Mahaffey said. "We talk about professional-development supports...mentoring for teachers. There's a human capital piece of this as well."  

As in previous years, the report ranked states on a "rural education priority" scale. Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Arizona were the top five priority states this year, which the report's authors define as the states that have the greatest need "for policymakers to address rural education issues." The report also offers a wealth of state-by-state data on rural student demographics, spending, and educational outcomes, as well as a new brief section on early-childhood education in rural areas. 

Rural Priority Chart.png

Other data from the report:

-       The amount of rural per-pupil funding has increased since the last report, from about $5,600 to more than $5,800.

-       About 3 percent of rural students are English-language learners and 13 percent qualify for special education.

-       More than two in five rural students live in poverty and one in eight has changed residence in the previous year. 

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