Examining the Characteristics of Rural School Districts

There are significant differences between urban and rural school districts, but there are also striking similarities. What are they, and how can disadvantages in rural schools’ characteristics be turned into strengths?

Before exploring the characteristics, it’s important to know that not all rural is the same. Mississippi’s rural delta area can almost be considered third world, which is vastly different from rural Ohio, where there’s industry and small populations, which is vastly different from rural Great Plains, where enrollment is declining as people are relocating.

Because rural communities are so diverse, making blanket statements at a national level about what rural“is” creates similarities and equalities that are nonexistent because national averaging obscures the truth. Rather, it is more appropriate — and accurate — to consider the definition of rural from a regional perspective. Considering which policies make sense regionally provides a stronger opportunity to meet rural needs, says Rachel B. Tompkins, president of the Rural School and Community Trust in Arlington, VA, and a board member of Washington-based Organizations Concerned about Rural Schools (OCRA).

Tompkins also believes it’s important to think in terms of policies when examining rural districts’ challenges. She argues that most policies are not based upon the educational needs of the students (rural or urban), and that they should be based on the best judgment that can be made about what resources are needed to educate students in the best way.

1. Funding

When it comes to funding, there is a vast difference in the amount of funding received by rural districts when compared with urban districts, though not so much in how they get it.

Some funding for public education is provided by the individual states. States have a tendency to make sure everyone receives the exact same thing relative to an established formula, which works in theory. In reality, some school districts require more because they’re isolated or rural.“It seems grossly unfair to say that you’re going to give the same amount of revenue when the need is so much greater in rural districts than it is in urban districts,” says John Covington, superintendent of Pueblo City Schools, an urban district in Colorado. He has 20 years experience in public education, much of it with rural districts.

“What we’re seeing,” clarifies William Mathis, superintendent of schools for Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, VT, “is that states provide less than 50 percent of a district’s funds. For the other 50 percent, rural districts typically do not have the tax base to provide the level of educational services they want and need.” His rural district covers 450 sq. mi., and serves 2,000 students — and has no traffic lights! In addition, he is a member of the board of directors of American Education Finance Association and conducts research with the American Educational Research Association.

State funds are augmented either by the local tax base or the millage that each local education agency generates. “When you have a school district like Macon, GA, or Lowndes County, MI, or even Dallas County, TX, with a poor tax base and low mill levy, it creates large amounts of inequity between the kind of education afforded rural districts compared with urban districts,” says Covington.

Specifically, it creates problems across the board, including recruitment and retention of highly-qualified personnel, capital improvement programs for facilities construction and maintenance, and new textbooks and technology. “So, you don’t have the same things available to you in a rural district as you do in an urban district,” says Covington.

“One of the primary debates that we should be engaged in is the debate of equity,” continues Covington. “We have a tendency to still look at being fair in the sense that we want to provide students with the same thing: a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Instead, the conversation should be about funding based on need to make sure all children are getting the quality of education they need to be successful — to receive the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to be fierce competitors and develop to their maximum potential,” says Covington. “When we don’t do that, we’re guilty of creating a disparity in the quality of education received by rural school districts compared to urban.”

Add No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a national program that is forcing adequacy, to this already-complicated scenario, and funding becomes even more skewed. The irony is that school districts need additional monies to overcome the effects of poverty and adequately educate every child to the standards of NCLB, yet national funding isn’t forthcoming to meet those standards.

Mathis isn’t afraid to offer his opinion about the inequity in funding. He notes that about 75 studies have been done about how to bring schools up to standards. The dollar amount is $144.5B. “That sounds like a lot of money,” says Mathis. “But when you compare it to the cost of wars and the cost of tax breaks recently given to the wealthy, it’s not. It’s a matter of what our society chooses to value.”

2. Poverty

There may be a sense that poverty is limited to rural school districts. Or, depending on where you live, there may be a sense that poverty is limited to urban school districts. The truth of the matter is that both kinds of districts have poverty.

It would seem that this common characteristic would unite rural and urban administrators in thinking about policies to deal with issues like the achievement gap. For example, both urban and rural districts could consider salary policies to attract the best teachers to rural or urban sites by paying them more than they would make in suburban sites.

However, more often than not, common characteristics don’t bring the two together. “That’s because the solutions for dealing with poverty between urban and rural districts may be different because of scale (rural districts are smaller), and because of school finance policies and teacher salary policies that divide the way urban and rural districts are treated,” says Tompkins.

For example, a state may give more money per under-privileged student to districts experiencing poverty because it’s been proven that it costs more to educate low-income students. However, that advantage is wiped out by policies that give greater salaries to urban teachers because they experience a higher cost of living than do teachers in rural areas.

“Even though urban and rural districts may both have high poverty rates, you have to think about the weights, advantages, or resources provided both to be certain that high-poverty rural districts are really getting an advantage,” Tompkins sums.

3. Administration

As a characteristic of both rural and urban school districts, administration has more differences than similarities. And it’s a characteristic for which policies aren’t necessarily required to make rural schools better.

As with most of the characteristics, scale is a factor. For example, because urban districts tend to be large, their administrators are specialized. A superintendent may have a number of assistant superintendents to fulfill various functions. And rural districts, because they’re small, may be lucky to even have an assistant superintendent. This puts the superintendent in the role of generalist, knowing a little about everything.

Rural communities have a set of relationships, where people are literally related to each other in a variety of ways. In a community of 2,500 or less, everyone knows everyone else; they worship together, run into each other in the grocery store, they belong to the same civic organizations… These multiple interlocking relationships don’t exist in urban areas where there is more anonymity and less dense relationships. This has a lot of implications for how administrators relate to the community: they simply can’t hide. “It also means the students can’t hide,” says Mathis. “If a child is having a rough patch, we are going to see it.”

“Because the facility is the center of community life and there are dense relationships,” says Tompkins, “people leading the schools in rural areas have to have a whole set of outreach and relationship-building skills that are different from what urban leaders have to have.” In fact, the superintendent and principal in a rural community is a real community leader on par with the most significant and important political leaders in the community. Add to this the fact that often the school system is the largest employer in the community, and this makes the superintendent and school board essential economic leaders.

4. Staffing

Right now, both rural and urban districts are having a tough time finding the best and brightest teachers because of a lack in the recruitment pool. Still, rural districts are finding it extremely difficult. Here’s why.

The teachers who are available want to be in places with excellent amenities; when those are not found in rural areas, they move to urban schools. Also, teachers will begin their careers in rural areas and then move up to higher-paying districts, creating a revolving door. On top of that, the less-qualified teachers are normally found in high-poverty rural districts. All of these factors combined make it especially difficult for rural school districts to keep classrooms staffed, much less meet the requirements of NCLB.

Ensuring that rural school districts receive or have the opportunity to receive highly qualified employees, both administrative and instructional, is essential. But it isn’t easy. “If you have a system where there are low education levels in the population, it creates a reinforcing system of low expectations,” says Tompkins, “and it’s tough to break out of.”

“The debate has been going on for years about the forgiveness of federal and state student loans for education majors,” says Covington. “We forgive student loans for medical professionals who commit to spending ‘X’ number of years working in rural communities. We should be doing the same thing for the best and brightest teachers.”

Also, teacher salaries are based on the cost of living, a sound economic policy that’s flawed, says Tompkins. She suggests teachers be recruited based on the cost of recruiting: How much does it cost to recruit and pay a highly qualified teacher to work in a rural school district? “Rural teachers are paid a lot less than urban teachers, and it’s very hard to recruit and retain teachers in low-income rural and in remote-and-isolated rural places,” she says.

5. Facilities

Like poverty, some administrators may have an impression that crumbling facilities are found in rural areas, while others may believe they’re only found in urban areas. The truth is that both have crumbling facilities.

“Urban schools have huge facility problems,” says Mathis. “The deterioration of early 20th-century facilities is deplorable. They’ve suffered from a lack of maintenance, and many are falling down.”

Likewise, rural schools are in poor shape. Because they’re isolated, they do not have the tax base to build new schools or sustain the ones they already have.

One advantage rural districts do have is a sense of community. If a school needs a new roof, for example, the community gathers on Saturday and replaces it. “A lot of things are done this way in rural areas,” says Mathis. “You have the ability to make personal and human scale adjustments and do things that you wouldn’t be able to do in a bigger district.”

6. Technology

There are differences between urban and rural districts with this characteristic, and the upside is the great possibilities it offers rural school districts.

The main difference is that rural schools lag in access to technology compared to urban schools, once again because of funding. “E-rate funding has helped a lot,” says Covington, “but still you don’t find the kinds of technology in rural areas that you find in urban.”

Technology offers rural students access to any information in the world. It’s a huge advantage for students in rural districts to have access to specialty courses that otherwise would not be feasible, like AP Calculus or AP Physics.

“You have the same access to resources on the Web whether you’re in a metropolitan area or in a very remote area,” says Mathis. “As the cost comes down and broadband becomes more readily available, the knowledge resources and the electronic world are much more accessible. It’s a given, and it’s going to help rural schools a great deal.”

“The caution I have,” continues Mathis, “is that some people are touting technology as a great panacea, believing we can put students in cyber schools and save money.” But that isn’t true. Teaching and education are a distinctly human enterprise. Technology doesn’t eliminate the need for high-quality teaching.

By examining deficiencies and employing sound policies, rural school districts can overcome challenges in different characteristics. The payoff, of course, is better-educated students equipped to help become part of the solution in the future.

Rural Districts: The Good Stuff

Rural school districts have some wonderful advantages to tout.

“One is behavior,” says Covington. “It’s not that you don’t have behavior problems in rural districts, because you do, but they are a lot less serious than those demonstrated by students in urban school districts.” Less behavior challenges equal fewer challenges in teaching and learning.

“There’s also a tendency for rural communities to be a lot more supportive of their schools,” says Covington. “In rural communities, the life of the community centers around the schools. In urban centers, there’s a lot more for parents and students to do, so the school is just the school.”