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Why Rural Schools Are Essential

In places that are mostly rural, like my home state of Utah, public schools are not only the route in isolated, remote areas to a good education; they are the cord that binds residents in tiny towns together. The cover story “Who’s Looking Out for Rural Schools,” takes an in-depth look at these schools and their value to our nation. 

Rural schools face significant challenges in making sure all children have the support, tools, and opportunity for a well-rounded education. In these communities, Betsy DeVos’ agenda of charter schools, voucher programs, and education savings accounts could be fatal.

The educators who breathe life into rural schools are as dedicated and qualified as they come, but this can’t make up for support they don’t have. And siphoning resources from these schools for charters and voucher programs would only make matters worse.

Mara Casey Tieken, author of Why Rural Schools Matter, spent months with educators, parents, students, and residents in two rural Arkansas towns: Delight and Earle. She studied their schools and established relationships with residents. Tieken found deeply entrenched, mutually beneficial ties: In Delight, for instance, everybody comes to the fund raisers in the school cafeteria for the local cemetery, as well as the senior class promenade around the high school. In Earle, the town’s Black residents gained political power and a voice through school board elections. 

Rural schools “sit on the fringes of today’s public school debates,” but the community-school movement is encapsulated by what they do well: create programs and connections that benefit children attending the schools, and residents living in the area.  

“These schools sustain the town’s economy while focusing on college preparation; they welcome new community members while empowering leaders; they foster common values while challenging tradition,” Tieken writes. “They promote academic achievement because they build relationships; they inspire generational support because they nurture youth.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act offers good news for rural schools, including continuation of the Rural Education Achievement Program. The Secure Rural Schools Act is another safety net, providing funding for forest communities in 42 states. NEA is part of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, and we are pushing Congress to renew and fully fund that act. 

But for some schools, it’s too late. By the time Tieken’s book was published in 2014, she writes, the high school in Delight had closed because of a state law requiring consolidation of very small school districts, and the middle school in Earle had closed due to the flawed No Child Left Behind Act’s singular focus on test scores. 

The bottom line is that rural schools are not just an important part of our history; they are an essential part of our future. Making them stronger is in our children’s best interest.  

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