One-third of American children attend school in rural or small towns, but we overlook their needs and fund their schools poorly.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an article that first appeared in Kappan Magazine. The full article can be found here. Kappan will have a free online conversation with Marty March 24, from 4 to 5 pm (Eastern). Sign up here.
One day when I was about 10 years old, I was walking down the rural road my family lived on when a bus carrying a visiting high school baseball team from a far away urban school pulled to a stop beside me. The driver opened the door and hollered, “Where’s the local high school?”
I told him he had to turn around, go back to the top of the big hill, turn left, and drive another half mile. As the bus pulled away, one of the ballplayers yelled out the window at me, “Hey, Hayseed,” to the derisive roar of his teammates. I remember thinking, “I’m no hayseed, and I’m not the one who’s lost.”
Rural people remain one of the last groups about whom cultural slurs are considered politically acceptable speech. No one is criticized for calling someone a “hayseed,” not to mention hick, hillbilly, bumpkin, redneck, goober, yokel, rube, plowboy, cracker, trailer trash, or woodchuck.
Rural people are easily subjected to these cultural defamations, in part, because they’re too willing to accept them. Even the word “rural” itself is sometimes used in a sleight-of-hand manner by rural people. In a remarkable exercise in cultural relativity, rural has been defined by many as “any place smaller than where I live.” This notion runs through American culture to its core. I once asked a man who lived in a town of fewer than 1,000 residents in a remote area of the Great Plains if he considered himself “rural.” “Oh no,” he quickly protested, “I live here in town, not on a farm.”
But “rural” not only means small and remote in our cultural lexicon. It also means removed from the progressive influences of modern life. The cultural conflict between urban modernity and rural traditionalism is reflected with most ferocity in politics, where simplicity always appeals.
Some argue that rural people don’t understand their own self-interest when they vote for conservative candidates, while others respond that rural “elites” have fostered an anti-urban conservative political rebellion that threatens to take urban progress back to the Dark Ages, and still others argue that rural voters are quintessentially pragmatic and not ideologically anything.
TV political analysts and pundits, with their need to polarize, can’t seem to get enough of this divide, as when CNN commentator and Democratic strategist James Carville expressed the profoundly glib opinion (based on 2010 presidential voting) that Pennsylvania is “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.”
In the midst of this cultural divide, over 9 million students attended a school classified as “rural” by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2007. This doesn’t include another 6 million who attend schools in small towns that most urbanites would definitely find “rural.”
A national statistical profile of the students in these rural districts places them pretty close to the national mean on many variables. But national averages mean very little in a rural context. The variation from state to state and place to place is so large that averages simply mask extremes.
Nationally, the poverty rate (as measured by eligibility for Title I funding) for all rural and small town districts is 18.5%, slightly higher than the national average for all districts. But in the 10% of rural and small-town districts with the highest rates of disadvantaged students, over 37% of the students live in poverty (about the same rate as the Bronx). Moreover, 59% of the 1.3 million students in those high-poverty rural districts are children of color — 28% black, 23% Hispanic, and 8% Native American.
For many rural communities, the primary school funding issue now is whether they can have a school at all.
If these high-poverty rural and small-town districts were one school district, it would be the largest, poorest, most racially diverse district in the nation. But they are not one district. They are a dispersed group of generally small districts (three-fourths have fewer than 2,000 students) mostly south of a line running roughly from Washington, D.C., through Cincinnati, Kansas City, Denver, and Sacramento.
Title One and Federal Inequality
You would expect federal funding formulas to take a more deliberate look at equitable distribution of funding, especially under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal program whose explicit purpose is to increase the capacity of local school districts to meet the needs of disadvantaged students. Unfortunately, some of the most egregious school funding inequities for rural schools are buried deep in the Title I formula.
Some Title I funds are distributed using a weighting system to artificially inflate the count of disadvantaged students in a district. The purpose is to send more money to schools with “high concentrations” of poverty. That’s a good idea, but it’s been poorly applied under current law.
That’s because Congress decided that “high concentration” of poverty can mean either high percentages of disadvantaged students or just plain high numbers of disadvantaged students, even if those high numbers do not translate into high percentages. Large suburbs, for example, can pile up large numbers of poor kids, even though they’re a small percentage of the total district enrollment.
This dual meaning of “high concentration” was first used in 2002. Since then, each district’s disadvantaged student count is calculated using both the “percentage weighting” and the “number weighting” systems. The higher of the two counts is the one that goes into the formula to determine that district’s share of the Title I appropriation. Most districts gain weighted student count under one or both of these weighting schemes.
But here’s the rub. Just because a district gets a boost in student count under one or the other of the weighting systems doesn’t mean it gets more money. Why not? Because the total amount available to be distributed is fixed by congressional appropriation, so the formula is really just a way to determine shares of that pool of money. Even if a district gets an increase in student count, it can still lose funding if other districts get a proportionally bigger boost in student count. About 10,700 smaller districts suffered just that because 550 larger districts outmuscled them by number weighting, according to a 2008-09 Congressional Research Service analysis.
With number weighting, money moves from smaller districts — no matter how high their student poverty rate — to larger districts — no matter how low their student poverty rate. Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia are among the beneficiaries of number weighting, but so are large, low-poverty suburban districts like Fairfax County, Va. (suburban Washington), Gwinnett County, Ga. (suburban Atlanta), and Baltimore County, Md. (suburban Baltimore). High-poverty rural and small-town districts and even high-poverty small-city districts, like those in Rochester, N.Y.; Laredo, Texas; Flint, Mich.; and Reading, Pa., are all damaged.
How bad is it? Fairfax County, with a 6% poverty rate, gets more Title I money for each disadvantaged student than rural Virginia’s Lee County Public Schools with its 33% poverty rate.
Rural communities are real places that for generations have educated their children and sent them off to earn their living and pay their taxes elsewhere. These communities and the schools that serve them are a lot more complex than those who succumb to rural stereotypes want to acknowledge, let alone understand.
But with one-third of U.S. public school students in rural or small-town schools, some of them in the poorest communities in the nation, the needs of these schools can be ignored only by dropping the pretext that the education of every child matters. School funding systems should reflect the real differences among rural school districts, just as they should reflect the differences among all districts. “Rural” is not per se a favored class. But neither is it a category to dismiss as bygone or backward or insignificant, as has too often been the case.
Marty Strange is policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust. He lives and works in Randolph, Vt.