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Can education reform work in rural America?

Rural school districts are more likely to be disadvantaged by one-size-fits-all  mandates from state legislatures and the Federal government. Yet rural districts, where resources are already spread thin and school are often important employers, are also more likely to be skeptical of school choice programs.

A new policy brief by Dan Fishman in Education Next, argues new schooling options and other education reforms could not only work in rural America but could also help revitalize its communities.

Fishman, a former high school teacher from rural New Mexico, says top-down mandates can stretch the resources of rural schools. While urban districts have the manpower to interpret rules or complete reports, rural districts must rely on a smaller central staff. Although qualified candidates may live in the community, state teaching certification and licensing requirements may leave classrooms unfilled as rural districts struggle to find certified teachers.

According to Fishman, the federal i3 (Investing in Innovation Fund) grant application takes 120 hours at a minimum to complete. Often districts have to pay outside consultants to handle paperwork that may reward the district with about $30 to $90 extra per pupil. Again, rural districts find themselves on the short end of the stick.

So why add more educational options like charter schools, if districts can barely stretch the resources for the existing schools?

Among the 10 most rural states, Fishman writes, only Arkansas allows charter schools. He credits the Arkansas Public School Resource Center for providing support, technical assistance, and training allowing rural districts and charters to work together. He notes that charters will be opening soon in rural areas of Oklahoma and Mississippi. Meanwhile, charter legislation continues to fail in rural holdouts such as Kentucky and West Virginia.

Fishman calls for more rural charters in communities that can support them, but remains skeptical that charter schools could overcome opposition to charters and fear of competition for scarce revenue in many rural communities. In some places, he notes, the freedom afforded charter schools could give rural public schools more autonomy.

“Various political and economic pressures, constraints, and incentives may combine to induce some communities to convert their traditional school to a charter,” he writes, “but it is likely that the political power rural legislators and politicians enjoy will cement the status quo in most rural districts and hamper actions that promote chartering.”

Other options are available.

Blended learning and virtual education can give rural students greater access to courses beyond district boundaries. Career and Technical Academies customized to the needs of the rural community could also flourish. Fishman highlights a partnerships between Science, Engineering, Math and Technology (STEM) schools and Toyota that produced an “Advanced Manufacturing Technical program,” which allows high school graduates to earn an associate’s degree while also serving as a pipeline to high-paying jobs in Toyota plants in several rural states.

Educational options for Florida’s rural students are growing each year. Rural students in north Florida have access to career and technical schools along with several successful charters, including a STEM school in Madison County and a charter on a Seminole Indian reservation. Florida’s new course access program will allow students to enroll in online courses at different schools and even across district boundaries.

The lack of resources available to rural school districts and the “innovation killers” that disproportionately affect them may restrain the growth of school choice options and limit changes that could revitalize their school systems.

Education reformers will have to be mindful of these issues while also ensuring reforms meet the needs of the local community. At the very least, reformers should remember their own refrain that one-size does not fit all, but that rural communities could benefit from new approaches at least as much as their urban counterparts.

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BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.