Federal Dateline

Rural Schools, Long Overlooked, Gain Elusive Victory

by Jordan Cross

About 2½ years ago, six superintendents visited AASA headquarters to discuss the state of their rural school systems. The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was on the horizon, and they saw an opportunity to make several accommodations in federal education policy for the nation's rural school districts.

They began the conversation by teasing out all of the instances in federal education policy in which small, rural districts were overlooked. Overwhelmed by the realization that federal formula programs uniformly neglect small schools, the superintendents quickly chose a different course. They outlined a new program that would address the particular needs of isolated school districts.

Some 30 months later, the Rural Education Initiative is a reality. On Dec. 21, 2000, President Clinton signed the last bill of his administration, and the AASA rural schools proposal became federal law.

Modest Outlays

The idea behind the Rural Education Initiative was straightforward: Give every small district between $20,000 and $60,000 to address its own priorities. The problem with most federal education programs is they allocate funding based on student population. While that may seem like a reasonable idea for most districts, the smallest school systems—those with 600 students or less—usually get just a few hundred dollars from each program.

As any school administrator would attest, it is difficult to sustain a drug prevention program, reduce class size or modernize a school's technology resources for $500. The money is insufficient to support a full-time teacher or staff member.

The Rural Education Initiative was designed to guarantee that the smallest districts get at least enough federal assistance to hire one professional. Of course, the district is free to spend the funding however it needs, but the designers of the program thought schools should be able at minimum to hire a teacher.

To pay for this substantial sum, rural schools are allowed to combine federal money from the Eisenhower Professional Development Program, the Class-Size Reduction Program, the Innovative Education Program Strategies Block Grant and the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program. This flexibility allows school districts to commingle funds in ways never before possible. The lump sum, combined with additional federal funds, then can be used for professional development, teacher hiring, technology resources or other efforts aimed at increasing reading and math scores.

Grassroots Impact

The new program owes its success in large part to AASA's legislative corps, to the recipients of AASA's rural/small schools electronic newsletter and a few supportive congressional representatives.

The Rural Education Initiative was a grassroots effort from the beginning. Almost immediately after the program was outlined, AASA's volunteers began contacting their members of Congress on a regular basis. In no time, senators and representatives were asking to sign on to the legislation.

When some members of Congress resisted the idea of a rural schools proposal, AASA contacted its state affiliates, which in turn recruited additional superintendents to lobby on behalf of the program. Each time a state association joined the cause, hundreds of letters and phone calls would flood a targeted congressional office. Finally, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, after two years of grassroots efforts, an agreement was reached and the proposal became law.

Unfortunately, Congress has yet to allocate funds for the program. AASA and its grassroots campaign will continue to push for an appropriation in next year's budget. In the meantime, rural districts have been rewarded with the new flexibility of the Rural Education Initiative.

Misleading Picture

Why was the Rural Education Initiative necessary? Surrounded by three of the nation's 20 largest school districts, lawmakers in the nation's capital frequently assume that mammoth urban and suburban districts are the norm. Fairfax County, Va., has 149,000 students and educates more sons and daughters of congressional representatives than any district in the nation. The two adjacent Maryland systems, Prince George's County and Montgomery County, educate 130,000 and 128,000 students, respectively.

Members of Congress are inundated, like the rest of us, by images in the national media that perpetuate the stereotype of schools as overcrowded, unruly and unsafe places to learn. Often the only time a school makes the news is when something goes wrong. The thousands of schools without violent incidents or falling test scores never get the coverage they deserve.

Forgotten, too, are the 20 percent of students educated in rural areas who do not resemble the media characterization of modern public schools. Nearly one third of the nation's school districts enroll fewer than 600 students—a fact the designers of President Clinton's 100,000 new teacher initiative clearly didn't take into consideration.

When the federal government's Class-Size Reduction Program was created, it was clearly designed for large urban systems. In fact, if a district did not qualify for at least a full teacher's salary, the school system had to forfeit its money. By the program's second year, the problem had been partially corrected and rural districts could supplement class-size funds with their own money, but evidently small and rural districts were an afterthought.

To be fair, designing a single professional development program or technology initiative that will serve a 200-student district and a 200,000-student district is a challenge. The real achievement of the grassroots effort behind the Rural Education Initiative was the increased awareness of diverse school districts it created on Capitol Hill.

As Congress returns to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year, we can only hope elected officials have a greater understanding of the needs particular to rural, urban and suburban areas.

Jordan Cross is a legislative specialist at AASA. E-mail: jcross@aasa.org