The Challenges of Rural Education
Close to one in three public school students in this country attends school in a rural area or small town—defined as one with a population of 25,000 people or fewer. Even using a more stringent definition of "rural," including only students in communities of 2,500 or less, more than 20 percent of public school students attend rural schools.
Many of these schools face problems similar to those of urban schools—for example, 28 percent of rural children in Arizona and New Mexico live in households with incomes below the poverty line. Meanwhile, many rural schools face particular challenges of falling student populations, high transportation costs and difficulty attracting quality teachers. (The average rural teacher's salary is only 86 percent of the average non-rural teacher's salary.)
Yet the needs of rural schools rarely loom very large in policy discussions and recommendations for education reform. To take one example, President Bush's sweeping education reform law, Leave No Child Behind, relies on student performance on standardized tests as the most important measure of school success. However, in a very small school, a poor performance by one or two students could spell failure for the whole school.
In its February 2003 report, Why Rural Matters 2003: The Continuing Need for Every State to Take Action on Rural Education, the Rural School and Community Trust provides a state-by-state look at rural education. It looks at questions such as what percentage of a state's population is rural, and how large that population is; how many public school students are enrolled in rural schools; and how many of those children live in poverty. It also looks at conditions in rural schools: teacher salaries, use of computers in classrooms, transportation budgets, grade and class sizes, and the percentage of schools struggling with declining enrollments.
These and other statistics are weighed in the report to create two separate gauges: one measures the importance of rural education within each state. This gauge weighs factors such as how rural a state is overall, how many students attend small rural schools, how many of those students are poor, and how many are from ethnic or linguistic minorities. It attempts to answer this question: "How important is it to the overall educational performance of each state to explicitly address the particular needs of schools serving its rural communities?"
Using this measure, the report finds that Mississippi is the state for which rural education is most crucial. Other states for whom this sector ranks as "crucial" are North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Kentucky, Arizona, West Virginia, North Dakota, Alabama, Oklahoma, Maine, Montana and Vermont.
The second gauge measures how urgent rural education concerns are in a state. For this one, the report's authors looked at the average rural teacher's salary; the ratio of this salary to the average non-rural teacher's salary; the percentage of teachers who feel supported by their students' parents; the percentage of rural students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch; teacher-to-student ratios; use of computers in class; and whether administration and transportation costs are significantly higher than in non-rural schools.
Using this measure, Mississippi again ranks at the top of the scale. Other states for whom rural education policy should be a matter of urgent concern according to the methodology of this report are Alabama, Arizona, North Dakota, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Louisiana, South Dakota, Minnesota, Ohio, Arkansas and Delaware.
Taking both importance and urgency measures into account, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, West Virginia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, Montana and Maine emerge as the states where rural education is of special concern.
State-by-state snapshots offer a sense of how varied the issues are in these states. Mississippi, for instance, is one of only four majority-rural states in the nation; its rural schools and classes are relatively large, and teacher salaries are low. Only about half of teachers report feeling supported by parents, and computer use in Mississippi classrooms is the third-lowest in the nation. In Maine, which has the second-highest percentage of rural students in the nation, teacher salaries are low and computer use is also low—but schools and classes are small, and teachers report strong parental support. One urgent issue in Maine is declining enrollment, with two out of five rural schools having lost 10 percent or more of their student enrollment between 1996 and 2000.
"No matter what a state's ranking, every child—including every rural child—is important," noted Rural Trust policy director Marty Strange. "And every state can improve the policy climate for rural schools."
- The full report is available from the Rural School and Community Trust.
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Susan Phillips is former executive editor of Connect for Kids.