Why 2021 Must Be the Year for Rural Education

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It’s no secret that education reform initiatives tend to target urban schools. Achievement gaps in America’s largest cities are significant, and as families flock to cities for job opportunities, the pressure keeps mounting to tackle those disparities head-on. Undoubtedly, that work is important.

However, despite America’s major cities grabbing the education headlines, there’s no reason to sideline conversations on rural education. Rural communities and school districts face unique challenges, and this new year presents us with a golden opportunity to finally make rural education a part of the conversation. Here’s why there’s never been a better time to embrace it.

Rural Schools Make Up a Quarter of Our Nation’s Students

While major districts like the NYCDOE, LAUSD, and CPS attract all the media attention, nearly one in five students are actually enrolled in a rural school district. That’s more than the nation’s 85 largest districts combined. 

These schools serve students that are more diverse than you would expect, too. Rural schools are responsible for educating a majority of our nation’s Indigenous children. Furthermore, a significant number are also serving the growing number of English language learners, or ELLs. When folks in the education game talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion this new year, let’s be sure they’re keeping rural schools in mind, too.

The Digital Divide Keeps Growing

Brightbeam activists have been rallying around closing the digital divide for the last nine months, and we’ve had our share of wins. But the truth is that in rural communities, that divide has been even harder to close, and it’s taking a major toll on student learning.

It’s not just poverty that’s keeping kids logged out, though that is a major issue. There’s also the issue of geography in rural states like Kentucky, for example, where families sometimes live so far off the grid that providers literally won’t connect them.

It matters because even with the good news of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments on the way, virtual learning won’t be going away anytime soon. With rural families already facing an uphill climb just to get connected, we have an obligation to make sure this year doesn’t see more of the same inequities as last. Internet For All must be a policy priority to make sure rural students can keep learning.

Funding

School funding can either be progressive, where more money is targeting low-income students than those above the poverty line, or regressive, which favors schools and districts with wealthier students. In states with regressive school funding formulas, rural schools are often left starved for the leftover funds that first go to wealthier, suburban districts. 

With state budgets strained by the economic toll of the pandemic, rural schools may be forced to put crucial student support services on the chopping block. While the new stimulus deal will help by allocating $54.3 billion to K-12 schools, rural districts will likely need more than a single shot in the arm to solve their financial woes. In fact, it has a lot of people wondering how we challenge funding formulas that pit schools against one another and think critically about what equitable school funding should look like.

These are just a handful of unique challenges that rural districts face. Among the many conversations about how to best improve educational outcomes for all students, we must not allow the urgency of these issues to get lost in the fray. 2021 offers us a new year of opportunities to challenge inequities, make big asks of our leaders and have bold conversations about improving student outcomes in rural communities. Let’s get to work.

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