3 Things That Should Be Done to Help Rural Schools

Too often, policymakers focus exclusively on inner-city schools.

Third-grader Erin Uecker works on her classroom's Smart Board during a grammar lesson at Freeman Elementary in Freeman, S.D. on Jan. 10, 2014.

Inner-city schools get all the press, but rural schools face challenges too.

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Urban schools command the vast majority of attention from policymakers and school reformers. With consistently poor performance and cross-cutting problems such as poverty, lack of health care access and hunger, inner-city schools have been the blinking light on the dashboard of American education for more than a generation.

But it’s not only city schools that need our attention and help. One-third of American schools are rural, and they serve 11 million students. These schools face many of the same challenges that urban school districts do, including a high proportion of low-income students, low educational attainment among parents and low college attendance among high-school graduates. In fact, students in rural communities are likelier than their peers to live in poverty and only 27 percent go on to college. But the challenges of rural schools receive far less attention from policymakers, reformers and the media.

One roadblock standing in the way of improving rural schools is that we simply don’t know enough about the unique challenges and opportunities they face. We do know that lack of funding and an inability to find enough qualified teachers hamper rural education. But there are few solutions designed specifically for rural schools and students.

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A new project funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation promises to give us a much more detailed look at education in rural communities and how it can be improved. The project is called the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho, or ROCI, and while its work will focus on schools in Idaho, the lessons will have implications for rural communities everywhere.

While we wait for more data and recommendations to come out of ROCI, three areas hold promise for improving rural education:

1) More federal and state funding should be attached to rural students: Tax bases in many rural communities are small, which makes it difficult to provide adequate funding for good schools. While money isn’t the only factor determining student success, it is an important one. States and the federal government should increase funding for rural students, to help offset the disadvantage that currently exists.

2) A greater push for high-quality online instruction: This could broaden the scope of educational opportunities available to rural students and help to alleviate staffing shortages. Cutting down on long and arduous journeys from a rural student’s home to her school; virtually attending classes taught by a subject matter expert in another city; linking students who share similar interests but attend schools great distances apart – online learning can make all this and more possible.

The key is access to high-speed Internet connections. The Obama administration, in partnership with several private companies, is leading the ConnectED initiative to ensure that 99 percent of students have access to broadband. With $2 billion in federal funding, another $750 million from private partners and a specific $10 million allocation for rural distance learning, ConnectED has the potential to make online learning a reality for millions of rural students.

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3) Rural communities need more charter schools: Charter schools are public schools that operate outside school districts and offer a variety of innovative learning environments and curriculum types. They also have shown success in bringing great teachers into the profession – for instance, through partnerships with Teach for America. In a new ROCI report on rural charters prepared by Bellwether Education’s Andy Smarick, Albertson Foundation Executive Director Jamie MacMillan says, “Charters have the potential to serve as a hotbed of innovation for rural education in America.”

To date, however, charter operators have focused on urban school districts. Fewer than 900 charter schools operate in rural communities across America. The ROCI report covers the hurdles that prevent charters from opening – including unequal access to funding, transportation, and facilities; and the fact that seven of the nation’s ten most-rural states don’t yet allow charters. Overcoming these barriers will be well worth the effort if we can improve the quality of rural education and help more rural students get to and through college and prepared for the workforce.

These three areas – more funding for rural students, broadband connectivity to power online learning, and more educational options through charter schools – have the potential to dramatically improve the quality of rural education in America. The Albertson Foundation’s support of the ROCI initiative will be a major step forward in our understanding of rural education and the ways policymakers, educators and parents can give rural students the best start in life. Everyone who has an interest in the quality of America’s schools, opportunities for our students and the future of the American workforce should keep an eye on ROCI.