The lay of the land where I live, here in the Missouri River Valley, can be deceiving. A barely noticeable variation in elevation on a dry day can quickly have you in over your head if the levee breaks in July. To the naked eye, until water floods the land, everything seems level. That is only true for those who view it from the safe seat of a lifeboat.
So it is in rural communities where our small schools are forced to compete for support and funding. A slow decline is barely noticeable until we suddenly find ourselves treading water. The federal “˜No Child Left Behind’ law was hoped to be a lifeboat for students by encouraging schools to use outcome-based standards of education. But government’s neglect of rural schools has left them drowning in paperwork and red ink.
One problem many rural schools have is that they are seeing enrollments of challenged students increase as overall enrollment falls. This is happening in communities with limited employment prospects. The rules assume that children are the same everywhere, but fail to take into account that some children and their families are stuck in minimum wage, Quick Stop economies.
Quick Stop economies develop when people stop in your community only to buy fuel or food. Countless numbers pass through, but few choose to stay and build a life. It’s an economy of minimum wage jobs and little chance for advancement. Many of the children who are born and raised in Quick Stop areas learn to look elsewhere for opportunity.
This situation affects rural schools in at least three ways. First, the cost of local education goes up as the percentage of students with special needs increases. Then, second, if overall enrollment declines, state funding is placed at risk because in states like mine (Missouri), small schools are penalized: per pupil state aid is decreased as enrollment falls.
So as the youthful population of a stagnant community declines and school enrollment drops, schools lose money both from reduced numbers of students as well as through reduced support per child. The third negative effect takes place when funding is affected by test scores. No Child Left Behind fails to acknowledge that the lay of the land for many rural communities is below the flood plain of social, economic, and educational reality.
"A Technology Framework for No Child Left Behind"
(This is relevant to rural schools…how??)
While small schools are literally flooded with new requirements that mandate more hours of testing, teachers may lack important time for interaction with individual pupils. And while intensive testing done solely to justify funding becomes the measure of outcome-based education, it may mask the true outcome of State and Federal educational directives that dominate the attention of overloaded faculties and discriminate against any school not urban or wealthy.
Sometimes, because of constraints on funding and teachers’ time, the very students that educational requirements are designed to help are denied the attention they need in order to achieve. Better funded schools in higher population areas continue to raise teacher salaries. Sometimes dedication, quality of a rural life, and lower cost of living are enough to offset the better pay offered in cities — but not always.
The situation is so bad that a large group of schools, from mostly rural Missouri, have banded together to sue the State of Missouri for its failure to fund them properly. In Arkansas, a suit to force full funding of schools resulted in the closure of schools with 350 or fewer students, most of them small and rural. One result, besides loss of local schools, was decreased local representation on school boards within the involved communities. More litigation has taken place in other rural states, such as Kentucky, Nebraska, Indiana, and Oklahoma.
Book buddies, King City, MO
Karon Combe's Kindergarten
Photo: King City Schools
Rural economic development won’t automatically eliminate students with special needs, just as it won’t eliminate drugs, or other long running social problems, but it can offer rural communities the opportunity to attract new enrollments through growth, and improve overall outcomes through re-population and increased revenue. In the meantime, states and the federal government should acknowledge the special needs of rural America, where employment and per capita income have failed to keep pace with most of the rest of the country. That failure is not so much one of citizens, but of government . The discriminatory standards, which sometimes seem aimed more at closing schools than improving them, should end.
One school in particular, with enrollment so low that if it were in Arkansas it would be in danger of being closed, is in Rock Port, MO, population 1395. As a student, I attended Rock Port, and later, as an adult I served on the Board of Education there, just as my mother did before me and as my son does now. At 354 students, Rock Port has seen a steady decline in numbers from an enrollment that was once above 700. One might think that given all the challenges of small schools, Rock Port would be on the ropes. Far from being educationally challenged, even though the Missouri General Assembly fails to fund small schools fully in Missouri, Rock Port is accredited with distinction by the Missouri Department of Education, proving once again that rural America is no stranger to valiant efforts.
Our small towns still retain memories of better times. Community spirit is strong. All of us deplore the epidemic of methamphetamines that receives so much attention in the news, but we all know that casting the light of education into the darkest corners of our society can and will drive those shadowy problems away.
Communities in the Heartland have been neglected for too long. Flooding rural towns with unfunded educational mandates that fail to take into account a land that is neither level nor without risk will not protect our children or sustain our population. It merely creates the mistaken illusion of a level field.