Rural Schools: Growing, Diverse, and ... Complicated

Last Updated: February 01, 2008

This article appeared in the February 2008 Rural Policy Matters

By Rachel B. Tompkins, President, Rural School and Community Trust

This article first appeared as the back-page editorial in Education Week on January 16th.

In the spring of 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts came to my hometown of Hinton, West Virginia, looking for enough votes to prove that a Northern liberal urban Catholic candidate could win over Southern conservative rural Protestant voters. I was the editor of my high school newspaper and covered the visit. But J.F.K. didn’t just stop in Hinton, a railroad town in decline. He campaigned town to town in West Virginia for nearly a month.

He expected to see evidence of the economic hardship that was the central message of his campaign, but what he discovered was rural poverty so stark it stunned him. He listened to proud, strong people express their hurt and learned a lot about rural America.

Kennedy won that West Virginia primary, the Democratic nomination, and the presidency, carrying West Virginia’s desperately poor coalfield counties with as much as 75 percent of the vote.

What would urban or suburban presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama, or Mitt Romney discover about rural America today by campaigning intensely, as Kennedy did, in a heavily rural state? If they stopped long enough to listen, especially in the poorest rural regions, they would find people talking about today’s top poverty issue: education. And they would get an earful.

They would hear complaints about miserly funding systems that keep rural teacher pay too low to compete with wealthy districts’. They would hear about highly respected veteran teachers being badgered into early retirement by silly rules that label them “not highly qualified” because they teach one course out of field. They would hear about woeful facilities that let rain in and heat out, tax policies that saddle the poorest people with the heaviest education tax load, racially charged discipline practices that put kids on the street instead of in the classroom, inhumanely long bus rides to consolidated schools far from home, and irrational curriculum requirements that are simply unattainable for thinly staffed small schools on lean budgets.

They would hear about the relentless pressure on rural people to either accept these injustices or be prepared to give up their schools, and about their anger at being labeled “backward” and “only interested in their sports teams” just because they are willing to fight to keep and improve their small schools.

The candidates might begin to doubt the pundits who say that when it comes to education, “rural” means “white, well-off, withering away, and wonderfully simple.”

They would learn first that rural is certainly not withering away: Twenty-two percent of U.S. public school students—about 10 million—attend schools in more than 26,000 rural communities, each so small the entire population wouldn’t fill a good symphony hall in one of our major cities (2,500 people or fewer). And, between 2003 and 2005, rural enrollment increased by 1.4 million—an astounding 15 percent growth rate.

They would learn also that rural is not necessarily white: Twenty-three percent of rural students are members of minority groups; minority enrollment grew 55 percent from 1996 to 2005, and nearly half of all English-language learners are in rural schools.

And they would learn that “well-off” does not define rural either. Nationwide, the 800 school districts in the poorest rural communities serve a school-age population of over 950,000 students, and more than 32 percent of them are Title I students. That rate is as high as that in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, or Philadelphia. Further, students in these poorest “Rural 800” districts are 26 percent African-American, 20 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent Native American.

White students also are amply represented in these statistics. In West Virginia, the poorest rural districts are in the same coalfield counties that gave Kennedy over 60 percent of their votes in the 1960 general election. Today, all have higher percentages of Title I students than Philadelphia.

If rural education is not “white,” “well-off,” or “withering away,” maybe it is not “wonderfully simple,” either.

If presidential candidates and policymakers pay attention, they will find that many state governments have not served their rural students well, especially where need is greatest.

In South Carolina, over one-half the rural students qualify for federally subsidized meals, and 45 percent of rural 9th graders fail to graduate four years later, yet funding is so meager that rural schools spend less than $4,200 per pupil on instruction.

In Oklahoma, 57 percent of students qualify for subsidized meals, and instructional expenditures in rural schools are the lowest in the nation at less than $3,600 per pupil. Yet the Oklahoma Supreme Court recently ruled that school funding is a purely political question, beyond the reach of the courts.

In Arizona, where rural schools on average spend just under $4,000 per pupil on instruction, the funding inequity between the wealthiest rural schools and the poorest rural schools is the worst in the nation. That means the pathetically low average masks the severe deprivation faced by children in the poorest communities. As in Oklahoma, however, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled recently that school funding is not a matter for the courts to judge.

An analysis by the Rural School and Community Trust  reveals that states with the worst rural student outcomes are those with the most impoverished, minority, and ELL students in rural schools. They are also the states where rural schools receive the fewest resources, and where rural students have been herded into the biggest schools and districts.

The simple reality is that the poorest rural students attend school in the poorest states—those with the least taxable resources to support an adequate education. This fact does not relieve such states of their constitutional duty to provide a quality public education, but it does underscore the critical nature of federal funding for high-poverty rural districts. And that is where such districts currently have a big problem.

For the past six years, two of the four formulas used to distribute federal Title I funds have systematically discriminated against small, high-poverty school districts. These formulas use student weighting schemes intended to direct more funding to districts with the highest concentrations of Title I students, but they allow two alternative methods of weighting. One gives added weight based on higher percentages of Title I students in a district. The other gives added weight based on the number of Title I students in a district. The alternative giving more weight to a district is the one used to determine its share of the Title I pie. Larger districts often come out better under the number-weighting alternative. Small districts never benefit from number weighting.

As a result, a large district with a lower percentage of Title I students often receives more Title I funding per pupil than a smaller district with a higher percentage of Title I students.

Presidential attention and leadership could change this. Congress has an opportunity to make such a change when it reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose latest version is the 6-year-old No Child Left Behind law. To do so would be one small step toward eradicating the attitude that if it’s rural, it really doesn’t matter. It’s time to give rural education the attention it deserves, to recognize the field’s poverty, diversity, and complexity, and to respond to its needs.