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Rural Schools Battle What's Seen As Inequitable Funding Systems

Although rural schools educate about one-third of the country's children, many struggle to meet students' needs as a result of funding systems that, in their view, are designed to their disadvantage.

That's the premise of an article, "Finding Fairness For Rural Students," that appeared in a recent issue of Kappan, a publication of Phi Delta Kappa International, which is a professional association for educators.

The article's author is rural schools advocate Marty Strange, who works as policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust. The eight-page piece is a good primer for anyone trying to gain a better understanding of the state and federal structures that create funding challenges for rural schools.

Strange explains some fundamental issues, such as why rural schools often don't have as much political strength as their more urban counterparts (rural students are dispersed in many districts and often are high-poverty) and how their biggest financial problem is whether they'll be able to continue existing (consolidation continues to threaten rural districts nationally).

Strange contends the primary purpose of consolidation appears to be cutting spending rather than improving student achievement, and he describes four factors that often precede consolidation efforts: declining enrollment and increased per-pupil costs; fiscal distress and budget cuts in state government; disparities in the economic fortunes of rural versus urban areas; and court decisions forcing changes in school funding systems.

He talks about the state and federal funding systems that hurt rural schools, specifically highlighting inequities in the allocation of federal Title I money. He doesn't mention the Formula Fairness campaign, or the group of organizations fighting to change the way those funds are distributed, but he does give an easy-to-understand description as to why the federal Title I formula causes problems for rural schools. Simply put, the current formula has a weighting system that's supposed to increase the share of money going to districts with high concentrations of student poverty, but those behind the campaign say the formula ends up hurting small, poor districts.

In addition, the article has some interesting statistics on rural schools. For example, did you know that if you combined into one district the top 10 percent of rural and small-town districts with the highest student poverty rates, those 1.3 million students would make up the largest, poorest, and most racially diverse district in the country?

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