Rural schools get left behind

Thursday, February 13, 2003

Small school districts in rural America are waging an uphill battle to provide a quality education, many without the necessary support of policy-makers, according to a report released Wednesday by the Rural School and Community Trust.

The 50-state report compiled by the Rural Trust, a national organization that works to improve rural education, found that many states, including Missouri, lack sufficient policies to meet the needs of rural school districts. These districts typically receive less funding, and less attention from legislators, than larger, urban districts.

Administrators in some Southeast Missouri schools say they can attest to the problems facing rural districts, but are quick to point out the advantages that come from having a small school system.

"Every school has strengths and weaknesses, but one of the things that makes small, rural school districts unique is the personal touch of knowing your staff, your students and your parents," said Tom Allen, superintendent of Delta School District. "However, it's financially difficult to offer what we need to in order to give kids a fair chance, because enrollment numbers drive funding."

In Missouri, 40.8 percent of schools are located in areas defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as rural -- those with communities of less than 2,500 -- many of which are in Southeast Missouri. Nationwide, 21 percent of students are in rural communities.

The Rural Trust report ranks states in 19 categories. Overall, Missouri was ranked 21st out of the 50 states included in the report, and placed among the lowest 15 states on five of the 19 categories.

The biggest concern noted by evaluators was the state's average rural teacher's salary, which at $28,584 is ranked the seventh worst in the nation.

"Small schools always struggle with teacher salary," said Allen. "When your school's assessed valuation is so low, and you border places like Jackson and Cape Girardeau with stronger assessed valuations, it's tough."

The Delta School District, which has around 325 students, employs 39 teachers and has an average salary of $31,346, compared to the overall state average salary of $36,053 and the state's average rural teacher's salary of $28,584.

"Our teachers have the same expenses as teachers in bigger schools, and work just as hard and many times harder," said Allen. "We're not terrible when it comes to salary, but we're not as good as we'd like to be."

Missouri's average teacher salaries aren't the only salaries below national averages. According to the report, the per capita income -- which the U.S. Census Bureau uses to measure poverty -- of $17,264 in Missouri's rural areas was below the national per capita income in rural areas of $19,285.

The poverty level in a community has a big impact on district funding through local tax revenue generated from assessed valuation of property.

While Missouri's foundation formula, the process used to distribute state money to school districts, takes into consideration the amount of local funding available, some rural schools still can't afford to keep pace with urban districts when it comes to facilities and purchasing technology.

The lack of technology in rural districts is another factor that the Rural Trust took into account in the report. It says 71.3 percent of teachers in rural Missouri schools reported having the use of computers in their classrooms, earning the state a rank of 26th in that category.

"We try to stay up to snuff when it comes to technology, so that rural kids aren't at any disadvantage," said Don Moore, superintendent of Kelly School District. "But we do face problems as a rural district."

However, Moore and other local educators say the availability of new grants and other funding that specifically targets the need for technology in rural schools has narrowed the gap significantly.

"When I started at Oak Ridge seven years ago, we had a very limited number of computers," said Cheri Fuemmeler, superintendent of Oak Ridge School District. "Maybe two or three for student use. We now have more than 200 computers for student use, as well as Smartboards in almost every classroom in the middle and high schools."

Fuemmeler and other administrators say the implementation of grants such as the federal Rural Education Achievement Program, which was adopted by Congress in 2001 and pours thousands of dollars into schools such as Delta and Oak Ridge, gives evidence that legislators are placing more emphasis on supporting rural districts.

Allen said last year, Delta schools received $22,000 from REAP. Fuemmeler said Oak Ridge did receive REAP money last year, but she wasn't sure of the amount.

Officials with Rural Trust say there have been several other developments in recent years that indicate more attention is being paid to rural districts, including new federal legislation that provides for a research and development center dedicated to rural education and a heightened focus on the issue by groups like the National Association of State Boards of Education, the Rural Sociological Society and the National School Boards Association.

Even so, Marty Strange, policy director at the Rural Trust headquarters in Washington, D.C., said rural districts are still not receiving the attention they need.

"If you listen to the education policy debate, particularly around the impact of the new No Child Left Behind law, chances are you will not hear much about rural schools," said Strange. "In most of the 50 states, they are left behind from the start."

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