Budget Comes up Short for Rural Schools

The president’s proposed 2014 budget names rural education as a concern, but it fails to address the real needs of smaller schools and districts. Caitlin Howley disects the rural education provisions in the 2014 budget plan.

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Equitable support for rural education is a civil rights issue. But the president’s proposed 2014 federal budget fails to go far enough in protecting the rights of rural students.

As a nation, we believe that everyone should have similar opportunities and that what happens in one part of the country affects the whole. Despite the hard work and ingenuity of rural educators, their schools and districts continue to confront serious hurdles. The implications reverberate across the United States.

Serving areas more sparsely populated, with smaller tax bases, and often poorer than urban or suburban districts, rural districts must conduct all the work of educating their students, implementing new initiatives and complying with state and federal policies that other districts must—but with fewer resources. Rural district budgets are often further constrained by the high cost of transporting students across long distances.

Stressed budgets in turn affect the number of staff that districts can hire and the number of higher-level courses they can offer. Rural teachers and administrators frequently undertake extra roles and responsibilities. For instance, a rural principal may also teach, drive a school bus and serve as the district grant writer. With limited resources and overworked staff, it’s practically a miracle that rural schools and districts accomplish what they do.

The president’s 2014 budget proposal does little to address these challenges.

It’s not that the budget proposal doesn’t specifically mention rural education. An accompanying rural education budget summary opens with a brief discussion of the percent of schools, districts and students in rural places (“nearly half,” “about one-third,” and “20 percent,” respectively), and an even briefer abstract of unique rural challenges (“difficulty recruiting and retaining effective teachers” and “providing students in these communities with access to a rigorous, well-rounded education”).

But the list of programs and provisions that the administration suggests will help rural schools and districts is lacking.

Here’s a rundown:

Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP)

The budget recommends continued formula funding for the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP), which provides additional monies to states and districts that may receive grant funding in amounts too small to be useful. For instance, the amount of funds provided to districts to assist with the education of English language learners (ELL) is based on the number of such students locally; a rural district serving three ELL students will receive very little money—but is nonetheless obligated by law to meet their particular learning needs. REAP offers rural districts the opportunity to overcome these sorts of gaps. REAP also allows eligible districts the flexibility to combine funds from various federal programs to better support programs they think are important.

Evaluations of the program suggest its provisions are well-received and of real help to rural places (see here and here). The proposed budget doesn’t address several improvements that could help REAP be more effective, such as increasing the number of students a district can serve and still be eligible for the program. Many rural districts, especially in the Southeast, are county-wide and as a result exceed the attendance threshold, despite facing the same rural challenges as their smaller counterparts. Still, in my reckoning, REAP is a good example of a program that deliberately and unambiguously addresses rural circumstances—which is why, by comparison, the remainder of the rural summary sheet is disappointing.

U.S. Department of Education
Improving rural achivement is one of the eight priority areas eligible for funding under the Education Department’s Investing in Innovation Fund competitive grants. Rural schools typically have fewer staff to devote to grant applications.

Competitive Grants

The next three items on the list of rural-focused budget requests are for competitive grants. These include a new High School Redesign competition, continuation of existing competitions for programs that enhance school-community collaboration and increased funding for School Turnaround Grants. Some of the grants will have resonance in rural communities. For instance, the administration notes that it will give particular consideration to “partnerships that focus on areas with limited access to quality career and college opportunities, such as rural districts.” Given the dynamics of rural decline and youth outmigration, new support for local postsecondary options will be welcome. Yet this begs a vital question: postsecondary options to do what, where? Without accompanying efforts coordinated across other agencies to help rural communities consider their economic prospects in an era of globalization, rural high schools may end up just doing a better job of preparing their students for lives elsewhere.

In any case, the more fundamental problem with competitive funding is that it sidesteps equity. If the capacity of rural schools and districts to better support high school students or to improve struggling schools were truly a priority, funding would be distributed based on need rather than the ability to submit a great proposal. (Because their staff are often already serving in a variety of administrative and instructional roles, and lack the grant-writing and research supports of large non-rural districts, the additional work required to submit a competitive proposal is rarely feasible for rural districts.) In addition, such funding would be accompanied by rural-responsive technical assistance so that the neediest sites get help that 1) bolsters their capacity to make improvements and 2) engages, rather than subverts, the characteristic ways rural people interact and work together (e.g., because rural educators are embedded in the multiplex relationships typical of rural communities, interactions tend to be informal and non-confrontational; technical assistance based on popular approaches such as collegial critique are less likely to be effective than strategies based on collaboration).

Comprehensive Centers

The administration also suggests that the Comprehensive Centers, which provide technical assistance to state departments of education so they can better support their districts and schools, are especially important to rural states, which may have small administrative staffs and serve small, remotely located schools. In my role as associate director of a regional Comprehensive Center, I can see the logic of this and know of several centers pursuing projects explicitly designed to help states assist rural districts (see, for example, the Northwest Comprehensive Center’s Rural School Improvement Network).

The department does not compel Comprehensive Centers to devote effort to addressing rural challenges. Instead,, rural projects have tended to arise organically when states themselves request such work or enterprising center staff see the need—and they align with grant priorities. However, because every state in the union is undertaking significant reform while also dealing with budget uncertainty and shifting policy, it’s easy for rural issues to get lost in the fray.

Waivers from “No Child Left Behind”

Next on the list of rural-focused provisions are opportunities to blend federal funding streams granted when state departments of education are awarded waivers from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the nation’s federal education law. In short, these waivers 

This table shows the amount of funds states spend on each rural student in their systems. Idaho spends the least per rural pupil, while Alaska spends the most. Click the chart to enlarge it.
 excuse states from various provisions and penalties associated with 2001’s reauthorization of the law (known as the No Child Left Behind [NCLB] Act)—in exchange for the implementation of certain education reforms. The ability to use funding sources more flexibly to improve low-performing schools, the administration suggests, will enable rural communities to “decide what works best for their schools.”

But not all states have applied for or received these waivers. In any case, the waivers are for states; schools and districts must adhere to the reforms their states promise to implement, whether or not such reforms were designed with rurality in mind. Some states with large percentages of rural schools such as Montana have decided the waivers don’t really do much to help them and have opted out.

Application Safeguards

The final item on the list of efforts intended to benefit rural schools and districts are “safeguards” the department will continue to use to help ensure rural sites are able to compete in federal funding competitions. These strategies include a pre-application process (designed to prevent rural proposers from devoting time and resources to the development of full proposals that aren’t competitive) and the award of additional points to proposals that claim to serve rural constituencies.

Tools such as these haven’t produced hosts of rural awards, however. In the last Investing in Innovation competition, three of 20 winners intended to serve rural constituencies. Another issue is that only two competitions—Investing in Innovation and Promise Neighborhoods—appear to offer priority points for proposals that target rural schools and districts. This may be in part because a number of these competitive grants are for states, which then distribute monies to districts. But the department could easily extend its commitment to rural constituencies by requiring states submitting proposals to document how they intend to ensure that rural districts have equitable access to funds.

Conclusion

It’s clear that education remains a priority for President Obama’s administration, with new funding sought for universal preschool and continued funding for reform efforts such as Race to the Top. It’s equally clear that rural advocates have encouraged the administration to consider how various programs might better support rural schools and districts.

What’s far less certain is whether the president’s proposals go far enough ensure rural educational equity.

Caitlin Howley is an education researcher and technical assistance provider who lives in West Virginia.

 

 

Topics: Education
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