Few are surprised when they hear that extreme inequality characterizes the public education system in this country. But for many that disparity evokes images of the crumbling schools in the inner-cities.
To be sure, most publications devote far more print to discussing urban schools than rural schools. And why not? The segregation and poverty faced by inner-city students along with the disintegrating infrastructure of the schools, and the seeming pipeline from school to prison paint a picture of despair.
However, while this attention is certainly justified, the unintended consequence fuels another problem while not as dramatic, is no less critical- the problematic plight of rural schools. The problems in Rural America while seemingly not as heart-wrenching are nonetheless depriving many children in those districts their fair share.
Like their counterparts in the big cities, many rural residents suffer extreme levels of poverty as well. According to a recent government report, the chronically high unemployment in Rural America is primarily due to slow population growth, which is taking a tragic toll on economic development.
This poverty directly impacts lower educational attainment in rural schools. A mere 10% of those from lower-income homes receive a bachelor’s degree by the age of 25. Another unpleasant consequence of low student enrollment is reduced public funding. The fewer students enrolled in a district, the less the funding. Not surprisingly, in most states, rural areas receive 20%-50% less funding than their urban counterparts.
Aside from funding problems, rural schools face unique transportation challenges. Rural residents, while comprising only 15% of the population, are scattered across nearly 75% the country. There is no way to service these vast distances without allocating a significant percentage of their funds to transporting their students to and from school.
A Shortage of Teachers and Therapists
The difficulty of traveling to rural schools impacts professionals also. Transportation challenges discourage teachers and therapists whether they be speech, occupational or mental health, from working at rural schools at all. So children in desperate need of special services are at the mercy of geography as well.
And if transportation problems weren’t enough, what about the salaries? The salaries for rural teachers and therapists are lower while the workloads are higher, at times including children who don’t fit into the teacher's or therapist’s expertise. Unable to hire qualified teachers and therapists is fueling attrition rates in the scjhools.
The Technology Blues
Technology in the classroom and with therapies has become the norm, except in rural areas which often don’t have the necessary infrastructure. Connectivity and budget constraints contribute to keeping rural districts offline too much of the time. Without Internet access, rural students are denied valuable electronic resources.
What Does the Crystal Ball Say?
Indeed the present state of rural education and related services such as speech, occupational and mental health therapies cannot be characterized as anything but bleak. It must be continuously emphasized that it is high time to address all underperforming schools, and underserved students regardless of their location.
Solutions to the problems mentioned above will require abiding concern, increased funding, creativity, and perhaps nothing less than heroic measures to ensure that every child, irrespective of geographical location, be it urban or rural is given an equal chance to thrive. As a society, we owe nothing less to these children.