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Nearly one in four American children attend rural schools and enrollment is growing at a faster rate in rural school districts than in all other places combined, according to ‘Why Rural Matters 2011-12’, a biennial report by the Rural School and Community Trust. In addition, rural schools show increasing rates of poverty, diversity, and students with special needs.
These widespread trends are most evident in the South, Southwest, and parts of Appalachia. ”As the evidence mounts that rural education is becoming a bigger and even more complex part of our national educational landscape, it is becoming impossible to ignore in the quest to improve achievement and narrow achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged groups.
The day of closing our eyes and hoping rural education will just go away are ending,” said Jerry Johnson, a co-author of ‘Why Rural Matters 2011-12’. More than 9.6 million students are enrolled in rural school districts in the United States, which is over 20 percent of all public school students in the United States.
An additional 1.8 million students are enrolled in rural schools in districts not classified as rural by the federal government. Together, these 11.4 million students who attend rural schools comprise more than 23 percent of all public school students, according to the Rural School and Community Trust, a respected national nonprofit organization.
Of those students attending schools in a rural district, two in five live in poverty, a rate that has increased by nearly a third in nine years. One student in four in rural areas is a child of color, and one in eight has changed residence in the past 12 months.
Between the 1999-2000 and 2008-2009 school years, rural districts’ enrollment increased by well over 1.7 million students, showing a growth rate of more than 22 percent. In comparison, non-rural enrollment increased by only 673,000, or by a 1.7 percent increase, for the same time period. As a result, the rural districts’ share of national public school enrollment increased from 17.4 percent to 20 percent over the decade, according to federal data in the report.
These enrollment gains were particularly strong in the most rural states in the South and Southwest. Ten states are among the top 13 in both the number and the percentage of rural enrollment growth — Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.
The top five states with rural enrollment increases — Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arizona — had a total gain of over 1.1 million, more than half the gain for all states that gained rural enrollment.
“Rural minority students are concentrated in certain states, and that concentration is increasing,” said Jerry Johnson. Over 69 percent of all rural minority students now attend school in states where they represent more than one third of the rural student enrollment. That is up from 58 percent as reported in ‘Why Rural Matters 2009’.
The report uses 25 statistical indicators grouped into five “gauges” to take the measure of rural education in each of the 50 states. The five gauges are then combined to produce a “rural education priority” gauge. The higher the ranking, the more important and challenging rural education is in a state’s overall education system and the more urgent it is for policy makers to pay attention to it.
The 13 highest priority states are all in the South, Southwest, and Appalachia, except Alaska, and all, but three, of the 12 next highest priority states are adjacent to them with the exception of Idaho, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
The report notes that rural education ranks high in importance in many Northern states, including Iowa, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, and Vermont. However, these states tend to rank low on other measures such as student poverty, diversity, or poor student performance and low graduation rates.
“These states symbolize rural education to many people. They are the basis for a myth that all of rural America is uncomplicated, stable, and reasonably well-off. That myth is part of what keeps rural education on the margins of the national debate about education policy,” said Marty Strange, the policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust and co-author of the report.
“But these classic Yankee and Prairie-Plains states are simply an important part of a much more varied, complex, and challenging rural America that education policy makers must better understand,” said Strange. The report found that states most responsive to rural schools have above average fiscal capacity.
For example, the report points out that of the 13 states with the lowest expenditures for rural teachers, all but Nebraska and South Dakota are below the national average in state fiscal capacity. On the other hand, states with the highest rural teacher salaries are primarily in the Northeast, the West, and the Mid-Atlantic. All these states are above the national average in state fiscal capacity per capital.