In states that are mostly rural like Utah, where I’m from, public schools are not only the route to a good education for students in isolated, remote areas; they are the cord that binds residents in tiny towns and hamlets together. Over half our nation’s school districts are in rural areas, where the public schools enroll 12 million students.
Rural schools face significant challenges when it comes to making sure all students have the support, tools and opportunity for a well-rounded education that helps them discover their talents and passions.
That’s one of the many reasons we object to Betsy DeVos’ singular focus on charter schools, voucher programs and education savings accounts—tactics that will be especially harmful in rural areas, where the local public schools are the only educational resource in town.
The Washington Post recently profiled a school in East Millinocket, Maine, population 2,000, “where postindustrial decline and poverty have amplified the role [the school] plays in the community even as funding has become more scarce.”
Rural schools struggle to find and hold on to good teachers and administrators because of housing issues, low pay and a poor tax base. The educators who breathe life into these schools are as dedicated and highly qualified as they come and often fill multiple roles. But this can’t make up for funding they don’t have. And taking resources away from public schools to support charters and voucher programs would only make matters much worse.
Of course, DeVos, a billionaire who never attended or worked in a public school, wouldn’t know about any of this. The jury is out on whether she will care and rise to meet these challenges (once she learns about them) with policies and solutions that will provide kids the opportunities they deserve in public schools, regardless of ZIP code.
Fortunately, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers good news for rural schools. ESSA continues the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP), and locale codes have been updated to make a better determination of which districts are considered rural. In addition, the law improves the formula that provides rural districts with an important source of funding. And ESSA requires the Department of Education to assess how it’s responding to the needs and characteristics of rural schools, to see what’s missing.
There are other federal laws that have a specific focus on rural schools, such the Secure Rural Schools Act. We’re still waiting for Congress to renew the act, which is an important safety net for forest communities in 42 states. In these states, national forests and other federally protected lands don’t contribute to local tax bases that provide funding for public schools. (We happen to think that relying on local taxes to fund public schools doesn’t work and has led to deep inequalities in school funding. But that’s a separate issue.)
NEA is part of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, a group that’s committed to pushing Congress to renew, and fully fund, the Secure Rural Schools Act. Although the act has been renewed several times in the past, last year, the funding was so paltry that some districts received 60 percent less from the law than they did in 2008. Our focus on the Secure Rural Schools Act is part of the broader look we take at all laws that impact public schools, to ensure that they treat rural schools and students fairly.
The bottom line is that rural schools are a vital part of who we are. “If you shut down schools, you destroy a town,” said a school administrator from the Maine town featured in the Post article. “There wouldn’t be any viable base for anyone or anything here.”