Rural schools play an important role in their communities, serving many functions beyond education. Given their prevalence and importance in their communities, rural schools merit more attention than they have previously been given. They often act as the center of social, recreational and cultural life in their communities. In addition, schools provide jobs in rural areas. Public schools are the top employer in 59 North Carolina counties.
Because of their small size, rural schools are often overlooked by researchers and policy analysts. However, according to a report from the Center for Public Education, approximately one-half of school districts, one-third of schools, and one-fifth of students in the United States are located in rural areas. North Carolina is home to 568,000 rural students, the second largest rural student population in the United States, after Texas. Eighty of North Carolina’s 100 counties are rural. Approximately 40 percent of the state’s public school students reside in rural counties, and 87 of the 115 traditional K-12 public school districts are located in rural counties. The recently published Top 10 Education Issues 2019 by the Public School Forum of NC notes that North Carolina is home to two very different economic realities. Urban centers are seeing both financial, industry and population growth while rural areas are generally in economic decline. The same report lists a renewed focus on rural schools as a top issue in education for the upcoming year.
Challenges for Rural Schools
One challenge for rural schools is the high level of poverty found in many rural communities. Nationwide, 64 percent of rural counties have high rates of child poverty compared with 47 percent of urban counties. Here in North Carolina, 62 percent of rural students qualify for free or reduced lunch compared to 46 percent of urban students. Children living in poverty face a number of educational disadvantages. Children from low-income homes are more likely to experience food, housing and energy insecurity. They are more likely to suffer from poor nutrition and inadequate healthcare. When they do become ill, it takes longer for them to recover. They are less likely to have adequate resources at home, and they have less access to enriching activities outside of school. These children enter school with a readiness gap that grows as they get older. Additionally, students living in poverty are more likely to drop out of college or never attend college.
Another problem faced by rural public schools is a lack of funding. Rural school districts receive less funding because of their smaller populations, but a lower student population does not always correspond with lower costs. Because students in rural districts tend to be spread out over a large geographical area, transportation costs per student tend to be high. On average nationwide, rural school districts receive just 17 percent of state education funding, although they comprise half of all districts and serve one in five students. Smaller rural schools are often at a disadvantage for funding in other ways. For example, the Title I funding formula emphasizes the number of students in poverty rather than the percentage of a school’s students that are in poverty. In addition, many rural schools have a small staff that may not have the time or training to complete applications for competitive grants. Even when rural schools do receive grant money, if it is awarded based on student population size, the amount awarded may not be significant.
A recent report on local school finances found a concerning and growing gap between wealthy and lower- income counties. There are fewer resources available to lower wealth counties, including money for teacher salaries and supplies. Also, the tax burden is greater in lower wealth counties because the tax base is smaller. Wealthier counties are able to keep tax rates low, while still procuring enough funds for their schools. For many districts across the nation, there is a growing teacher shortage due to years of underinvestment and stagnant salaries. Rural schools have an even more difficult time of attracting talent, as they have fewer resources to draw from for teacher salary supplements. Poorer, rural districts cannot make up the difference when state funding levels are insufficient and will continue to fall behind if funding adequacy is not addressed.
Students in rural schools have unique problems relating to academic performance. Rural students have lower literacy rates than urban and suburban students, which is likely a reflection of the high levels of poverty often found in rural areas.
Students in rural schools have access to fewer advanced classes than urban students. North Carolina’s rural districts have less than half as many high school AP course offerings as urban districts – an average of 5.8 percent for rural districts versus 11.9 percent for urban districts. Providing higher-level coursework poses a challenge for rural schools due to smaller teaching staffs.
Offering advanced coursework would require additional training or more teachers, something rural schools often cannot afford to fund. The lack of additional educational opportunities after high school contributes to overall lower wages in rural areas and smaller tax bases.
Finally, while rural students are more likely to graduate from high school compared to their urban peers, they are less likely to enter and graduate from college. As in other areas, graduation rates are lower for low-income and minority students in rural areas. Reasons that rural students do not attend college include financial concerns, the physical distance from colleges and university, and a lack of preparation from advanced coursework. According to a recent report by myFuture NC, “by next year, 67% of the jobs in our state will demand a postsecondary credential or degree.” It is crucial to address this important issue.
Many rural school districts suffer from a severe teacher shortage. Teachers at rural schools often have lower salaries and benefits than their urban counterparts. The average annual local teacher supplement in North Carolina’s rural school districts for the 2017-2018 school year, was $2,124. In non-rural districts, the average was $4,209 – nearly twice the amount. This allows urban school districts to better attract and retain top talent.
Teachers and principals often lack access to high-quality, relevant professional development opportunities, as they may be based far away from the location of such events, and the programming may not be relevant to the needs of rural schools. Accordingly, rural teachers can face professional isolation. For educators who did not grow up in the communities where they work, the geographic isolation of rural areas can be challenging as well. The smaller staffs of rural schools mean that teachers and principals often need to take on additional roles and responsibilities, such as building administration or bus driving.
Because of all these factors, rural schools face high teacher turnover rates. In North Carolina, 25 of the 30 districts with the highest teacher turnover rates are rural. As a result of the high turnover rate, rural school districts spend more time and resources hiring and training new teachers, further compounding their funding problems.
The NC Rural Center, an organization dedicated to advocating for the unique needs of rural residents lists expanding access to affordable high-speed broadband as one of the most pressing issues facing rural residents.
Many educational resources have moved online, including textbooks and reference materials. This poses a particular challenge for rural students and is sometimes referred to as the homework gap. This lack of high speed internet access at home makes it difficult for students to access information and complete assignments. A recent study by Dr. Cosmos George, president of the Warren County NAACP shows a correlation between ACT scores and access to broadband. Students with better access to broadband tend to perform better on college admissions tests.
An estimated 10 to 20 percent of our K-12 students do not have broadband internet access at home, according to the NC Broadband Infrastructure Office. The FCC reports that 6.29% of NC households do not have access to high speed broadband, and 95 percent of those households are in rural areas. The NC Rural Center suggests the following steps to help close to digital divide. First, raise the speed standard for federal investments in rural broadband. Second, leverage federal investments to expand rural high-speed broadband. And finally, continue to prioritize the connection of anchor institutions to high-speed broadband, particularly our public libraries. Governor Cooper’s recently released budget proposals include allocating funds of approximately $30 million to encourage private providers to bring broadband service to underserved areas, and creating a grant program to help close the homework gap for students without home internet access by investing $5 million in grants to provide mobile hotspots and devices such as laptops or tablets. We hope these important suggestions come to fruition.
Attempts at Reform
Rural schools face unique and complex challenges. Funding disparities between rural and urban communities mean fewer resources and opportunities for rural students. Many popular reforms can actually impede success in rural areas. These proposed reforms reveal a lack of appreciation of the particular issues facing rural schools.
Since the North Carolina General Assembly lifted the 100-school cap on charter schools in 2011, the number of charter schools in North Carolina has nearly doubled. In fact, of the three charter schools just approved by the State Board of Education, two are located in rural counties: Hobgood Charter Academy in Halifax County and Pocosin Innovative Charter in Washington County. Charter schools are causing financial strain in rural districts. Rural schools run on smaller budgets with little room for reduction of funds. As students leave traditional public schools for charter schools, fewer students are left behind at the traditional public schools. This diverts funds from already underfunded schools, causing a greater impact in rural areas. When students leave smaller district schools for charters and take allotted funding amounts with them, fixed costs like building maintenance and repair do not decrease and schools are left scrambling to make up for the loss. Voucher programs divert local tax dollars to largely unregulated private entities that run private schools. Taxpayers do not see how the money is used or who is spending it. Again, in a rural area the loss of funding for traditional public schools is more acutely felt. In addition, vouchers and charters both drive increasing amounts of segregation in traditional public schools, as middle class, mostly white students leave their district schools. The solution for meeting the needs of rural schools is adequate funding and not more privatization schemes.
School Closures or Teacher Replacement
Reform policies that require school closures or large scale replacement of teachers, such as those promoted under the No Child Left Behind Act, are impractical in rural areas, where local schools are often major employers. Such policies could put many people out of work, and the community would suffer economically from the destabilized job market. Additionally, because rural schools already suffer from teacher shortages, it is difficult to fill many of the vacancies left by mass teacher dismissals.
A study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service shows that higher levels of education are associated with better economic outcomes in rural areas. As the workforce becomes better educated, the area can attract more local businesses and expand the tax base desperately needed to support rural schools.
Rural Schools Can:
- Embrace place-based education. Place-based education is a way of teaching that integrates standard curriculum requirements with local resources, history and nature. It allows community partners, the natural environment, and local history to shape instruction. Place-based education has been found to increase test scores across subjects and improve students’ critical thinking and attitudes toward learning.
- Foster strong relationships with other districts to pool resources and knowledge.
- Join teacher networks to allow for more sharing among educators. More experienced teachers in the network can support rural teachers in curriculum design, enabling rural teachers to teach high-level classes.
- Engage area universities to develop “grow your own” teacher education programs to get more students into the rural teacher pipeline.
- Partner with businesses and higher education institutions to provide students real-world learning opportunities or dual enrollment courses.
Lawmakers and policymakers should
- Direct more attention to rural schools and provide adequate resources to help attract, train and retain quality teachers in rural areas.
- Adjust funding formulas to factor in rural school funding gaps and address rural schools’ need for funds to cover increased transportation costs and increased technological infrastructure.
- Support place-based and “grow your own” teacher education programs that support students who wish to teach in their own hometowns, and ensure school leaders have specialized training to deal with the specific issues facing rural districts.
- Develop a plan to ensure all students can connect to the internet outside of school.
Last revised March 13, 2019
10 Strategies for Rural North Carolina’s Future, NC Rural Center, https://www.ncruralcenter.org/engagement/advocacy/rural-counts/
2019 Local School Finance Study, Public School Forum of North Carolina, https://www.ncforum.org/download/29096/
2019 – 21 Governor’s Recommended Budget, The North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) https://www.osbm.nc.gov/budgetbook_2019-21
A Call to Action for the State of North Carolina, myFuture NC, https://www.myfuturenc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/A-Call-to-Action-Final-Report_Executive-Summary.pdf
DeNisco, Alison, Rural K12 districts tackle enrollment declines and teacher shortages, District Administration, January 16, 2019, https://districtadministration.com/rural-k12-districts-tackle-enrollment-declines-and-teacher-shortages/
Harper, Amelia, Rural schools seek creative solutions for declining enrollment, staff shortages, Education Dive, January 23, 2018, https://www.educationdive.com/news/rural-schools-seek-creative-solutions-for-declining-enrollment-staff-short/546530/
Hui, T. Keung, “A private school will become one of North Carolina’s newest charter schools,” Raleigh News & Observer, February 8, 2019, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/article225988980.html
Jacobson, Linda, Rural districts band together to promote innovation across schools, Education Dive, https://www.educationdive.com/news/rural-districts-band-together-to-promote-innovation-across-schools/442735/
Kominiak, Todd, Top Stories of 2018: Rural schools face common challenges, but need unique solutions, TrustED, https://www.k12insight.com/trusted/report-rural-schools/
Lavalley, Megan, Out of the Loop: Rural schools are largely left out of research and policy discussions, exacerbating poverty, inequity, and isolation, Center for Public Education, January 2018, https://cdn-files.nsba.org/s3fs-public/10901-5071_CPE_Rural_School_Report_Web_FINAL.pdf
Rural Schools, National Education Association, http://www.nea.org/home/16358.htm
Rural Education at a Glance, 2017 Edition, United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/83078/eib-171.pdf?v=0
Top 10 Education Issues 2019, Public School Forum of North Carolina, http://www.ncforum.org/download/29025/
Spotty Internet Access for Rural Students, https://www.eschoolnews.com/2019/02/21/spotty-internet-access-for-rural-students-limits-achievement/?all