Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Finding Fairness for Rural Students: One-Third of American Children Attend School in Rural or Small Towns, but We Overlook Their Needs and Fund Their Schools Poorly

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Finding Fairness for Rural Students: One-Third of American Children Attend School in Rural or Small Towns, but We Overlook Their Needs and Fund Their Schools Poorly

Article excerpt

One day when I was about 10 years old, I was walking down the rural road my family lived on when a bus carrying a visiting high school baseball team from a far away urban school pulled to a stop beside me. The driver opened the door and hollered, "Where's the local high school?" I told him he had to turn around, go back to the top of the big hill, turn left, and drive another half mile. As the bus pulled away, one of the ballplayers yelled out the window at me, "Hey, Hayseed," to the derisive roar of his teammates. I remember thinking, "I'm no hayseed, and I'm not the one who's lost."

Rural people remain one of the last groups about whom cultural slurs are considered politically acceptable speech. No one is criticized for calling someone a "hayseed," not to mention hick, hillbilly, bumpkin, redneck, goober, yokel, rube, plowboy, cracker, trailer trash, or woodchuck.

Rural people are easily subjected to these cultural defamations, in part, because they're too willing to accept them. Even the word "rural" itself is sometimes used in a sleight-of-hand manner by rural people. In a remarkable exercise in cultural relativity, rural has been defined by many as "any place smaller than where I live." This notion runs through American culture to its core. I once asked a man who lived in a town of fewer than 1,000 residents in a remote area of the Great Plains if he considered himself "rural." "Oh no," he quickly protested, "I live here in town, not on a farm."

But "rural" not only means small and remote in our cultural lexicon. It also means removed from the progressive influences of modern life. The cultural conflict between urban modernity and rural traditionalism is reflected with most ferocity in politics, where simplicity always appeals. Some argue that rural people don't understand their own self-interest when they vote for conservative candidates (Frank 2004), while others respond that rural "elites" have fostered an anti-urban conservative political rebellion that threatens to take urban progress back to the Dark Ages (Mann 2006), and still others argue that rural voters are quintessentially pragmatic and not ideologically anything (Boyles 2007). TV political analysts and pundits, with their need to polarize, can't seem to get enough of this divide, as when CNN commentator and Democratic strategist James Carville expressed the profoundly glib opinion (based on 2010 presidential voting) that Pennsylvania is "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between."


In the midst of this cultural divide, over 9 million students attended a school classified as "rural" by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2007. This doesn't include another 6 million who attend schools in small towns that most urbanites would definitely find "rural."

A national statistical profile of the students in these rural districts places them pretty close to the national mean on many variables. But national averages mean very little in a rural context. The variation from state to state and place to place is so large that averages simply mask extremes. Nationally, the poverty rate (as measured by eligibility for Title I funding) for all rural and small town districts is 18.5%, slightly higher than the national average for all districts. But in the 10% of rural and small-town districts with the highest rates of disadvantaged students, over 37% of the students live in poverty (about the same rate as the Bronx). Moreover, 59% of the 1.3 million students in those high-poverty rural districts are children of color--28% black, 23% Hispanic, and 8% Native American.

If these high-poverty rural and small-town districts were one school district, it would be the largest, poorest, most racially diverse district in the nation. But they are not one district. They are a dispersed group of generally small districts (three-fourths have fewer than 2,000 students) mostly south of a line running roughly from Washington, D. …

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