The Rural Public School Crisis

With federal cuts to rural education, it’s time for the Department of Education to pay attention to rural public schools.

Helen Wajda, Deputy Opinion Editor

In 2018, Keshia Speight, a third-grade teacher at a public school in rural North Carolina, reported that most years, she spends approximately $1,000 of her $37,000 annual salary on classroom supplies — including a printer and ink cartridges, pencils and educational games. Her school no longer offers any after-school activities due to a lack of funding. The school also reported being unable to afford to hire a school psychologist and update their security system in 2018. 

While this sounds like an extreme example, thousands of public schools across the country could (and have) shared similar stories of severe under-resourcing. A 2018 survey by the Department of Federal Education found that 94% of teachers reported using their own money to pay for classroom supplies, and in 2017, a rural Tennessee school district reported that three different counties were sharing one physics teacher. 

And yet, instead of increasing funding for public schools in America, last week, the Department of Federal Education quietly implemented a bookkeeping change that could take thousands of dollars in federal funding away from more than 800 rural schools — some of which are already among the most under-resourced in the country. 

The Rural and Low-Income School Program is a non-competitive federal assistance program that provides funding to schools in geographically isolated areas where 20% of students fall below the poverty line. For the past 17 years, schools have reported the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch to the department in order to determine their eligibility, rather than reporting census data. This is largely due to reports that census data often undercounts residents. 

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In letters to state education leaders last week, though, the USDOE announced that census data would now have to be used to determine school eligibility — a sudden change in enforcement that could cause many cash-strapped schools to lose funding that they have already budgeted for. 

The RLIS is the only federally-funded program available for rural schools, and many struggling schools rely on the program to afford mental health and guidance counselors, literacy specialists, updated technology and full-day kindergarten programs. These programs and resources are not frivolous extras, but essential programs that every public school should provide.

In approximately 46% of U.S. households with two parents and school-age children, both parents work full-time. Full-day kindergarten not only eases financial burdens by saving guardians from having to arrange childcare, but it has been linked to improved literacy. Using technology in the classroom has not only been linked to improved performance across subjects, but teaching students to use technology helps to level the playing field by ensuring that all students develop computer proficiency. The Institute of Medicine has found that in-school counseling and mental health services are essential for many students to excel academically. Cutting funds that keep these resources available in rural schools only places more barriers in the way of students who already have limited access to advanced coursework, falling reading scores and are less likely to attend college than urban and suburban students.

While a spokeswoman from the Education Department stated that the Department has drafted plans to implement the change that would allow schools to continue reporting free-and-reduced-lunch data, restoring these funds is just the first step in tackling the rural public school crisis. 

Approximately 15 million students were enrolled in rural schools in 2018 –– constituting nearly 1 in 5 public school students in the United States — but on average, rural schools receive only 17% of state education funding. Moreover, much of the research in education focuses on urban schools. While there is some overlap between the problems that urban and rural schools face, rural schools also face many unique problems: higher transportation costs, more difficulty accessing the internet, teacher shortages and high turnover rates. 

Rural schools desperately need increased funding overall and policies that address their unique problems. Many organizations are taking action to raise awareness about the plight of rural public schools like The Rural School and Community Trust, a nonprofit that focuses on advocating for appropriate state educational policies and researching rural schools. However, rural schools still struggle to provide students with basic necessities like internet access and mental health resources, which demonstrates that there is still a lot of work to be done. 

Every day that students at rural public schools have to go without adequate resources and teachers have to spend their already-below-average salaries on basic classroom necessities, is another day of injustice in the American public school system. It’s time for the U.S. Department of Education to truly take steps towards providing rural schools with the funding they need — a change that starts with restoring funds that they’ve already been promised.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

A version of this article appears in the Monday, Mar. 2, 2020, print edition. Email Helen Wajda at [email protected]

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