Why Rural Matters 2007: Major Findings

Last Updated: October 23, 2007

By Jerry Johnson, Policy Research and Analysis Manager and Marty Strange, Policy Director
Why Rural Matters 2007

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• Rural student enrollment is increasing both absolutely and as a percentage of the national student enrollment.
Between 2002-03 and 2004-05, rural school enrollment gained while non-rural school enrollment declined:
o Overall public school enrollment in the U.S. increased by about 602,000 students, or 1%.
o Enrollment in rural schools (those in communities with a population under 2,500) increased by
over 1,339,000 (or 15%).
o Enrollment for schools in communities of greater than 2,500 decreased by over 738,000 or 2%.
• The highest priority rural education regions are the Southwest, Southeast, Mid-South Delta, and Appalachia.
Poverty, fiscal incapacity, low levels of adult education, and low levels of student achievement run in the same mutually reinforcing circles in states in these regions, many of which are as fiscally challenged as their citizens and schools.
• In low achieving states, policies are making things worse, not better.
Research suggests that states serving higher percentages of students who are poor or have limited English language skills will have to invest additional resources to enable their students to reach the same level of achievement as other states. Research also demonstrates that poor and minority students derive substantial achievement benefits from attending smaller schools and districts. But the actual patterns we find in rural America are exactly the opposite. As expected, the states where the educational outcomes in rural schools require the most urgent attention are the states with the most impoverished, minority, and ELL rural students. They are also the states where schools receive the fewest resources and where students attend the largest schools and districts.
• Many states have seen a dramatic change in the demographic makeup of their student population in the past decade.
States where the demographic makeup of the student population has changed most dramatically in the past ten years are also among the states with the smallest rural minority enrollments in the (the top ten--New Hampshire, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Maine, Kansas, and Utah--together serve just over 100,000 rural minority students). Their average percentage increase is 124%. Nationally, the percent increase is about 55%, and states such as Texas, California, and North Carolina-each ranking near the top in terms of number and/or percent rural minority enrollment-show increases of more than 50%.
• Rural schools are most racially and ethnically diverse in the Southeast and Southwest.
In five states (Hawaii, New Mexico, Alaska, Arizona, and California), there is no racial or ethnic majority group in rural schools. Minority students make up 25% or more of the student population in 11 other states (in descending order, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, North Carolina, Georgia, Delaware, Florida, Alabama, and Virginia) and these states serve 80% of all rural minority students in the U.S. The most diverse rural student populations are concentrated in states where rural education is not likely to be a primary policy focus.
• Rural English Language Learners are most prevalent in the West.
In both New Mexico and Alaska, about one in three rural students qualifies for ELL services; in Arizona and California, one in five. The highest ranking state east of the Mississippi River is North Carolina, with just over 5% (or one in 20) of students qualifying for ELL services.
• Rural instructional expenditures per pupil are lowest in Southern states, where rural schools face severe socio-economic challenges.
Instructional expenditures per pupil range from $3,600 in rural Oklahoma to more than $7,900 in rural New York. Seven other states join Oklahoma in spending less than $4,000 per pupil for instruction in rural schools: Mississippi ($3,688), Arkansas ($3,790), Alabama ($3,793), Tennessee ($3,856), Arizona ($3,925), Idaho ($3,925), and Utah ($3,994). Significantly, nine of the 13 top rated states on the Socioeconomic Challenges gauge are among the 13 states with the lowest per pupil instructional funding: Mississippi, Kentucky, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina, Arizona, and Oklahoma. That these states serve the most impoverished rural schools and communities in the nation, and that they do so with fewer resources, suggests a disturbing pattern in which the distribution of resources appears to be compounding already challenging circumstances.
• Low rural teacher salaries dominate in the nation's heartland.
The 13 states with the lowest spending on instructional salaries are in contiguous states in the Heartland, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, including Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee.
• Big schools in big districts dominate in Southeastern states known for consolidated countywide school districts and regional high schools.
The 13 states with the largest schools in the largest districts are located in or adjacent to the Southeast Region: (in order) Maryland, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, Louisiana, Delaware, Mississippi, Kentucky, and West Virginia. States with the smallest schools and districts are mostly in the Great Plains and the West-states with mostly local independent school districts.
• The poorer and more diverse the rural student population, the lower the rural NAEP scores.
Twelve states have the lowest average scores on both the math and reading NAEP test for rural schools. They are located primarily in the Southwest, the Southeast, and Central Appalachia (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia). These states also have high socioeconomic challenges and student diversity, showing a strong correlation between these factors and low rural NAEP scores.
• Graduation rates are lowest in states mostly in the Southeast, but some states with the highest overall graduation rates also had the largest "graduation gaps" between white and minority students.
Rural graduation rates are below 70% in ten states, mostly in the Southeast: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. South Carolina leads the nation with the lowest rate at 55%. Some of the states that produced the highest overall rural graduation rates had the largest gaps in graduation rates between white and minority students (e.g., Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Utah, Wyoming). In these states, a very high percentage of rural minority students are Native American or Hispanic.
• The poorest rural populations are in the poorest states least able to afford the cost of an adequate education.
Unfortunately, over $12 billion in federal aid through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) intended to help schools combat the effects of poverty is distributed through formulas that systematically discriminate against small, high-poverty school districts. Congress should eliminate that bias and also consider a pilot program under Title II of ESEA that takes a more targeted approach to teacher improvement in some of the very poorest rural schools in the poorest rural regions.
• As rural America grows increasingly diverse, the need for adequate resources and supportive policy environments to meet the needs of English Language Learner (ELL) students grows ever more important.
Nearly one-half of all ELL students live in rural communities, and the rate of growth of this population is very high. But the growth in ELL student populations is rural areas is not spread uniformly across states, within states, or even within school districts. Regionally, the fastest growth (in terms of both actual growth and percentage growth) occurred in the southeastern U.S. Rural schools serving proportionally larger ELL student populations, on average, face higher concentrations of traditional barriers to educational achievement than do their counterparts serving fewer ELL students. In many states, higher percentages of ELL students are associated with higher levels of poverty among all students.