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How Education is Failing Rural America (And What We Can Do)

Updated: Jan 10, 2023

We’ve heard the argument over and over: the ‘rural brain drain’ has left once self-sustaining U.S. municipalities destitute. We acknowledge the many shortcomings of these cities and towns, such as low-incomes, insufficient local funding, and high dropout rates. We know that 47% of rural school districts do not have any students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) courses, (for urban districts that number is 2.6%). We also know that only a third of 18-24 year olds in rural areas are enrolled in college, compared to almost half of their urban peers.

In short, we know there is a disconnect regarding equal access to education opportunity. But where can we really point the blame?

It’s a complex question and the answers can easily harp on minutiae. But for the sake of understanding, we have broken down the answer into three main causes of inequity. Each cause will be followed with a practical solution, in an effort to put action to conviction.

Local Funding versus State Funding

On average, a school receives 45% of its funding from local money, 45% from the state and 10% from the federal government. Think about that for a moment. Almost half of the schools funding comes from local areas and most of those funds are coming from taxing local real estate values. So, basically, the ability to afford a year-round teacher depends, at least in part, on the property wealth around them. Most rural areas do not have high property values, especially in comparison to their urban counterparts. This means rural areas are often left with a lack of money to fund their schools, so they rely more heavily on the state and federal funding. But that is not always reliable.

For example, in Texas’s recent special legislative session, the school finance bill was one of the more contentious pieces of legislation. The Senate's decision to strip $1.5 billion in funding and reforms from a school finance bill left many education advocates deflated. That’s because less state aid will be sent to rural communities, further limiting their options to properly fund their schools.

According to Education Week, overall funding dropped in 36 states over the last 10 years. These cuts have come in conjunction with a rise in student enrollment, which is up 1.1 million from 2006 to 2016. It also comes with a loss of 220,000 education jobs.

Solution: Put pressure on your local officials. As a reporter covering the latest special session here in Austin, I saw countless protesters on the steps of the Capitol building. They were a big reason the school finance reform bill didn’t see an even larger cut in funding.

Even if you can’t march on the Capitol, you can easily call and/or email your congressman. Simply Google, “find my [STATE] representative,” and you will be directed to countless websites that only ask for your zip code and - voila! - you have your representative’s contact information.

Now, make your voice heard. It may seem insignificant, but if everyone adds to the cacophony of voices - it becomes harder for legislators to ignore their constituency.

You can click here for more state governmental resources.

Lack of Employment Opportunities

Rural America has simply become an engine of exodus, otherwise known as the “rural brain drain” phenomenon. This is due to the fact that young people in rural places often have limited options after they finish high school. For generations, many of these students would stay and work in whatever local industry dominated their towns. These were most often manufacturing jobs, and the large industry would be the main vein of economic sustainability in rural communities. Even the kids that went off to college would often come back and open a small business or work in upper management. That’s because these industries, when successful, provided much needed support to the local economy. But as that economic vitality slowed, and for some, abruptly ended, educated young people no longer returned. They, understandably, moved to areas with more opportunity.

So, instead of a pathway for youth to go into their communities after high school or college, rural public schools are churning out students - attempting to meet demand with an ever-decreasing supply. That’s not a sustainable economic model.

Solution: Rethink higher education. Maria Kefalas is a sociologist, professor, and co-author of the book Hollowing Out the Middle. In it, she focuses on the issue of ‘brain drain’ in Middle America and has some solutions she believes could help alleviate the problem.

Ultimately, she argues that we need to put more resources into other post-high school education that teach skills necessary for a new local economy. For example, instead of sending students away to four-year universities, she suggests pushing them into local sustainable energy programs. This new green economy - wind, biofuels, and biomass - has been dubbed the future of manufacturing. Kefalas argues local communities capitalize on this new wave of economic prosperity. Community colleges will play a vital role in that process by developing biotechnology programs, and other ‘green’ vocational training, to teach students the practical skills needed to move forward in this new world of manufacturing.

An example of a prosperous biotechnology program can be found at Indian Hill Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Slow Internet Speeds

Another important reason, one that cannot be overlooked, is the fact that only about half of people living in rural areas have access to fast internet. That’s compared to 94% of urban populations, according to US News. In this day and age, it is almost impossible to function without the Internet. The federal government understands this, which is why they created the “Connect America Fund,” which offers $10 billion in subsidies to the largest telecom companies in order to get broadband to under-served areas.

But in many areas, the big companies said “no thanks”. Why? The biggest reason is that the amount of people per square mile averages to about 2,000 in urban areas versus 10 in some rural areas.

So, with rural schools lacking access to high-speed Internet, they are literally unable to keep up with their urban peers. And because most modern schools are moving to Internet-based curricula, where research, testing and grading happens online, this definitely puts rural students at a disadvantage.

Solution: Vote with your wallet. As you saw with the “Connect America Fund,” the federal government is at least attempting to deal with this problem. But we need those larger corporations to agree. A small way you can help is to spend your money on telecom companies that have agreed to help.

For example, Microsoft has pledged to get 2 million rural Americans online, in a five-year plan; and the company is going to push phone companies and regulators to help get the whole 23.4 million connected, according to NPR.

In the end, the problem of so-called ‘education segregation’ is a big one. It can often seem intimidating, leaving us to simply avoid the issue altogether. But this is a mistake. Making efforts, however small, is key to mending the growing divide that has engulfed much of the U.S.

How does Education Unbound plan to solve this?

Education Unbound is building up STEAM in Education in rural America. The importance of creativity in the workforce and life is persisting, thus exposing students to hands-on learning that encourages students to think critically and creatively while allowing them to apply essential content knowledge in meaningful ways to gain focus on higher-order thinking skills.

Not every child needs to grow up to become a scientist, engineer, or designer, but every child should know how to think like one. With STEAM, the world where "Every Student Succeeds" will not be just an aspiration.

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