At a research conference entitled “Rural education in America: Challenges and promise,” scholars, educators and policy wonks converged on the American Enterprise Institute to enumerate some of the challenges of educating rural children. Inequities in education are appropriately linked to socioeconomic and racial disparities, but a key driver of the lack of universal access to quality education in America is geographic in nature.
In many rural communities, the “forgotten men and women” that President Trump alluded to in his Inaugural Address are forced to contend with the scourges of poverty, the opioid epidemic, and dismal economic growth. Angela Rachidi, a research fellow in poverty studies at AEI, noted that “in recent years, rural areas have surpassed urban areas when it comes to poverty.” For her part, Sally Satel, a prominent psychiatrist and fellow at AEI, consummately noted how the Opioid epidemic has had deleterious effects on education in rural communities. Moreover, a recent report out of the Economic Innovation Group notes that the recovery from the Great Recession is concentrated in a small number of urban and suburban communities while rural communities have experienced acute economic distress.
Against this backdrop of poor economic performance and social unravelling, many rural communities in America experience a number of challenges linked to their geographic characterization. James Schulz, a professor from the University Of Missouri St. –Louis, noted that school finance in rural America is made difficult by appraisal mechanisms that deviate from market principles. In an attempt to subsidize agriculture, states like Missouri have created a mechanism for assessing farmland that deflates the value of property. This leads to lower property tax collection, which means that local sources of funding for public education are smaller.
Daniel Player, a professor out of the University of Virginia, elucidated another key challenge rural schools faced: staffing. It is harder to attract educators to rural communities because of paltry housing opportunities and poor job prospects for spouses. The lack of supply of educators means that teacher quality has become a persistent problem in rural communities, as many poor-performing educators have retained their jobs simply because there exists no one to replace them.
Describing education in rural communities as monolithic would be a mistake, however. Dramatic variation of educational performance across regions necessarily implies that the dichotomy that is alleged to exist between urban and rural areas is undermined to a degree. However, it’s only by introducing another means of framing educational inequities in America that one can truly solve the problem.