Rural school districts face unique challenges. Approximately 17% of the nation’s population, 51 million people, live in rural communities, which have 19.4% of American school-age children. With population growth rates significantly lower than urban and suburban communities, schools serving these communities are expected to meet Annual Measurable Objective (AMO) requirements but must make do with proportionately declining federal, state, and local funding allocated on a per pupil basis. To ensure they meet AMO standards, rural districts must devise programs that improve standardized test scores while doing so with fewer resources.
Rural districts not only face declining ordinary funding but also have difficulty receiving supplemental state and federal grants. The Obama administration’s focus on competitive education grants awarded through its signature Race to the Top program leaves rural districts at a competitive disadvantage. To be eligible to apply, a district must have at least 2,500 students or apply through a consortium that pools enrollment figures from multiple districts. Requiring rural districts take this additional step poses coordination problems in the application process, difficulties in allocating grant money if the consortium receives an award, and problems with implementing policies across districts agreed to in the application. The US Department of Education has made accommodations for rural districts by creating the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP), which gives the US Secretary of Education flexibility in administrating grants for rural districts.
Due to the distance from urban areas and the accompanying amenities, rural districts often have difficulty attracting highly qualified teachers. Lacking funds to create attractive compensation packages that would appeal to individuals not raised in similar communities, administrators must rely on a smaller talent pool. Logistically, distance makes establishing high quality non-traditional public schools, like KIPP academies, which typically serve inner-city youth, a less viable option. In rural communities, high speed internet is often less accessible, which makes establishing blended learning and virtual schools more difficult.
However, these two models do provide a more viable option of exercising school choice than does establishing rural charters or allowing public school students to enroll in private schools through a voucher program. Students who participate in blended learning receive in-class instruction while also doing a portion of their work on computers. Because smaller, rural schools have fewer faculty members, advanced courses, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, may be unavailable to high achieving students. By allowing students to enroll in AP or IB classes remotely, these students will be able to progress at a similar rate as their peers in larger schools with more course offerings.
Virtual schools are student directed online education programs facilitated by an instructor, intended to provide accelerated or supplemental instruction. As the New York Times points out, evidence about virtual schools is quite mixed. Student teacher ratios, in some circumstances, approach anywhere from 70-100 students to 1 teacher, and proprietary providers are often accused of skimping to generate greater profits. But virtual schools do offer non-traditional students a means to learn without having to attend regular classes. While blended learning and virtual schooling have potential to provide rural students with supplemental or alternative approaches to learning, parents and teachers must be careful in choosing students who exhibit the drive and ability for self-directed learning.
Another proposed method of improving rural education is to create community schools, which provide social services to the community in addition to educating students. The rationale behind this approach is to monitor how students are cared for, to improve overall community well-being, and to cut overhead costs, freeing resources to be employed for instructional purposes. Parents receiving state benefits will be required to visit their student’s school, thus making them more likely to participate in school activities. However, there are difficulties in administrating this type of school financially. Incorporated schools have their own revenue streams that must be integrated with service providers’ resources to create an equitable distribution of expenditures. But the model is promising in that student achievement is not solely based on in-class instruction but also involves living circumstances, like nutrition and access to health care.
Given the geographic dispersion of rural communities, it is difficult for rural reformers to have their voices heard in statehouses. Legislatures convening in large cities have proof of under performing urban schools before their eyes, reducing rural advocates ability to advance their policy agendas. For rural education to improve, lawmakers must take into consideration the unique circumstances facing districts that serve nearly 20% of the nation’s children.