The Neglected Challenges of Rural Education

The Neglected Challenges of Rural Education
Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP
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Schools have a way of shaping the identity of many small-town communities. They can be a point of pride when it comes to athletics or the arts. Multiple generations of families often attend the same school, breeding a strong connection through the years.

But there is quiet crisis taking place in rural schools across America in a neglected corner far from the debates that rage over education reform. While the national focus is often on the poor performance of urban schools, rural and many small-town schools perform significantly worse than urban schools in many cases.

A new peer-reviewed study released by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) sheds light on this problem. The study, “Apples to Apples,” is the most comprehensive analysis to date of school performance in the Badger State. Schools are put on a level playing field by adjusting for demographic factors that can influence academic outcomes. The result is an honest and equal picture of school performance across all school sectors, including state exams and the ACT.

For rural and small-town schools in Wisconsin, the news is dire.

One part of our study examines the performance differences of urban, suburban, and rural schools. When we examine school performance along these lines, we find, perhaps not surprisingly, that rural and urban schools perform worse than suburban schools. But more surprising is that rural schools performed worse than urban schools. Specifically, rural schools had proficiency rates between 2 and 4 percentage points lower than urban schools.

Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty
        Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty

Urban schools, by nature of their size and impact, often garner the most attention when it comes to the problems of American education. While urban schools in Wisconsin are struggling, more attention needs to be paid to rural and small-town districts.

What does reform look like outside of urban centers?

Some make the case that options such as school vouchers or charter schools are unworkable in rural areas where populations are dispersed. While this may be true in the most isolated of communities, many rural areas currently have access to private education. A study put out by WILL last year noted that one in five private schools in the state of Wisconsin has an address in a rural county. Nationally, a 2017 report by the Brookings Institution found that 60 percent of rural families live within 10 miles of some form of school choice, whether via private schools or open enrollment to other schools and districts. This suggests that there are often options within a reasonable driving distance for many rural families. Online education also represents an important path for education reform in rural communities. Online programs can allow rural families to access distant schools, with curricula that may better fit their needs of their children.

Accessing these options may require the expansion of — or the easing of restrictions on — existing school-choice programs. The newest form of school choice, Education Savings Accounts, allow families to choose from a menu of online options offered by a variety of vendors. These represent an intriguing opportunity for improving the rural education landscape.

Policymakers in rural areas may be reluctant to implement reforms tailored to rural communities or worry that solutions that have worked for urban areas are either unfeasible or unnecessary. But our report is part of a growing body of research that should be a clarion call for policymakers to reconsider their approach to rural education. While educational failure looks different in rural areas, it is no less of a crisis in need of decisive action.

Will Flanders is Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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