Both Candidates Balk at Problems in Rural Schools
Now that the presidential candidates are saying a little more about education, let's take a look at their perspectives on rural schools.
Sadly, that's hard to do—because neither offers much that is substantive on rural education. Both Senator McCain's platform and Senator Obama's propose variants of their respective parties' standard educational policies. John McCain supports performance pay, whereby teachers are rewarded financially for increasing student achievement. In general, McCain offers up market-driven approaches to improving schools: school vouchers (although only in Washington, D.C. schools, it turns out), more use of private tutoring services, and "school choice" options. Barack Obama, on the other hand, says he will increase funding for education, expand early childhood education programs, and support teacher-mentoring initiatives. He also promises to reform No Child Left Behind, the nation's federal education law.
Interestingly, Obama co-opted some Republican policy preferences by suggesting his willingness to fund new charter schools, thereby enhancing school choice for families. Similarly, his suggestion that "teacher performance" (a.k.a. student achievement) be tied to pay is not a view traditionally embraced by his Democratic Party colleagues.
McCain, in turn, proposes some policies that Democrats (with the exception, perhaps, of teacher unions) might find appealing -- incentive bonuses for teachers who elect to work in struggling schools and federal support for expanded professional development.
Obama has given a discernable nod in the rural direction. He has indicated that he would support incentives for teachers who decide to teach in rural schools. As well, his rural platform acknowledges that diminished rural economies make teaching and staying in rural communities more difficult.
Students of Oakway Intermediate School
Oakway, South Carolina
Yet neither candidate has substantively addressed the particular issues facing rural educators and their communities. Many rural schools, especially those in Appalachia and the South, serve high poverty communities. Poverty remains a persistent impediment to equitable educational opportunities and student achievement. According to the Rural School and Community Trust, many states with the poorest rural student populations also have the lowest per pupil expenditures. But neither candidate has offered policy recommendations for ensuring equitable funding for these schools. Likewise, neither Obama nor McCain has acknowledged how weighted federal Title I grants fund large, urban school districts at the expense of rural districts.
Rural teachers across the nation are wrestling with how to educate the rising numbers of non-English-speaking immigrants in their schools. Despite increased enrollments, the numbers of English Language Learners (ELL) in rural schools often are still too low to warrant sufficient federal Title III funding to pay for adequate ELL curricula. According to an analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 40% of rural districts report vacancies and/or difficulty recruiting ELL teachers. Neither McCain nor Obama offers policies that could help such rural schools afford effective ELL programs and teachers. Neither has proposed how the many rural communities that are only recently linguistically diverse can recruit and train the ELL teachers they now need.
Lower pay, geographic and social isolation, and difficult working conditions (such as teaching multiple subjects) can make attracting and retaining teachers in rural districts challenging. Rural schools report teacher shortages in special education, in middle and secondary mathematics, and in science and foreign languages. Proximity to higher-paying districts makes recruitment and retention especially difficult for some rural districts. But other than incentives, McCain and Obama make no mention of how they might help rural schools recruit and retain good teachers and administrators. Nor do they suggest how geographically isolated and underresourced schools might afford high quality professional development. Educators in urban and suburban districts have easy access to universities and colleges of education, libraries, museums, and professional education service providers; rural educators often do not.
Mosaic bench outside Willits Charter School
Photo: Beedle Um Bum
Finally, local control to ensure that curriculum and instruction reflect community priorities and values is an ongoing interest of rural communities and schools. Although McCain proposes that principals should have more control over their school-level budgets, neither he nor Obama has specifically addressed who decides what should be taught.
The vice-presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, has added a new rural twist to the McCain campaign. Although she supports typically conservative policies, such as abstinence-based sex education, Education Week reports that Palin has said that school vouchers are an unconstitutional use of public funds.
Nearly 30% of all schools nationwide are rural. And there are more than 10 million rural students nationally—that's 20% of the total student population in the United States. The needs and challenges of this sizable group should not be overlooked by our presidential candidates. And the educational lives of children should not be shortchanged simply because of where they live.
Caitlin Howley is director of the Rural Education Center at Edvantia (RECE).