There are 467 counties in the USA where at least 20% of the working age population lacks a high school diploma. 80% of these counties are located in rural areas according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 1960, 60% of adults living in rural areas had not completed high school. Today that proportion has dropped down to 15%, so there has been a dramatic increase in rural Americans completing high school. During that same time, rural adults with a bachelor’s degree has increased from 5% to 19%; versus a 33% rate in urban areas. At the same time, adults with bachelor’s degrees average $41,030 in rural areas and $51,564 in urban areas, while with a graduate or professional degree rural residents make $51,996 versus $70,146 in urban areas. Rural America educates 6.5 million students, which is more than the 20 largest urban school districts combined.
Just 29% of 18-24 year-olds in rural areas are enrolled in college, compared to 47% of their urban peers, according to the New York Times. When looking at the quality of education, 47.2% of rural school districts do not have any secondary students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP), while that is only the case in 2.6% of urban districts. So there is a real disconnect regarding equal access to educational opportunity.
What are some of the causes of this inequity? One could be the funding dollars available in rural areas. In the USA school funding comes from three sources. On average, a school gets 45% from local money, 45% from the state and 10% from the federal government. Locally, most funds are raised by taxing on the local real estate value, so the value of rural property versus urban property influences the local educational contributions. Many principles will tell you that new textbooks or the ability to afford a year-round art teacher depends at least in part on the property wealth around them. When you combine the state and local dollars, which is most of the money schools survive on, overall funding dropped in 36 states over the last 10 years. According to Education Week, these cuts have come in parallel with a rise in student enrollment, which is up 1.1 million from 2006 to 2016. It has also come with a loss of 220,000 education jobs.
Another reason could be that when young people in rural places finish high school, their options are limited. They could stay and work in the local industry, or leave to pursue higher education and other types of work. For generations, manufacturing supported communities, logging and fishing industries kept rural communities thriving and family farms dominated the landscape. Many who went to college came home to open small businesses or work in upper management to support their local economy. But as the economic vitality of these communities, has slowed or declined, the opportunity for educated young people to return has disappeared. The result is that instead of a pathway for youth to go into their communities after high school or return with a knowledge base of new experiences after college, rural public schools have simply become engines of exodus, educating students for labor markets and communities located elsewhere. This phenomenon even has a name: “rural brain drain”.
A third reason could be that only 55% of people living in rural areas have access to internet speeds that qualify as broadband, compared to 94% of the urban population, according to US News. The federal government, through the “Connect America Fund”, offered $10 billion in subsidies to the largest telecom companies to begin offering broadband to under-served areas. In many areas the big companies rejected the offer, so it is now available to smaller providers. The reason most of these big companies said “no thanks” is because the population averages 2,000 people per square mile in urban areas versus 10 people in some rural areas. So with rural schools lacking access to high-speed internet (which is very dear to my heart), we now have a further divide in our growing world of personalized online curricula, internet-based school subject research, online testing, and just the broadening of subjects that can be accessed over the internet that may not be offered locally. This definitely puts rural kids behind urban kids.
In a fight to end educational inequity, Wendy Kopp in 1989 created Teach for America, which recruits high-performing college grads to teach in high-need urban and rural schools. Today their teachers come from 700 universities, representing dozens of college majors and fields. These teachers commit to spend 2 years in classrooms impacting the lives of students. They have contributed over 46,000 teachers to help over 410,000 students. The College Advising Corps started in 2005 at the University of Virginia, when they placed 14 recent graduates into rural communities. From 2005 through 2016, this organization has helped 848,000 students. You can donate to help either one of these groups. At DollarDays, we also want to help schools. So nominate your favorite school here this month to win one of our $500 shopping sprees.
But the crisis in rural American education goes beyond getting qualified teachers to help those rural districts compete. When a rural school principal also has to drive the school bus and teach classes, rural America loses. In rural America there are still 200 one room schools, down from 200,000 in 1913; and as CBS reports, teacher Judy Boyle who is in a one room school, says “I have teacher meetings once a week. It’s with me, myself and I. We get along really well!” None of us can lose sight that equal public schooling is the great hope of our democracy. Equal education is the opportunity to invite young people to cherish the values and skills that make our democracy great - from including an appreciation of diversity to the ability to listen to others, to the vocabulary to articulate one’s own viewpoint and the confidence to voice one’s opinion. Every school district that can’t compete with wealthier and better organized districts, helps erode our country’s overriding American dream. That is not fair to rural America and it is not fair to American’s overall.