Federal Dateline

Overlooked Too Long, Small Schools Deserve Our Attention

by KARI ARFSTROM, policy analyst, AASA

When the average American thinks about America’s public schools, most probably picture something they recently saw portrayed in the news--a large school system plagued by some problem, perhaps a shooting or chronically low test scores or some other contrary issue that attracts a news media mob.

The popular perception is that most school districts are large and ungainly. The real story is that nearly 75 percent of the nation’s school districts enroll fewer than 2,500 students. Close to half of all high school seniors live in small towns where they have about 30 classmates in their graduating class. This picture is far different from the one we glean from the evening news or syndicated newspaper columns.

These students are largely overlooked by legislative funders, too. Though nearly 40 percent of our students attend small, rural schools, they attract only 22 percent of the nation’s total expenditures for public education, according to the 1997 Digest of Educational Statistics.

Cut Off from Aid
AASA is hoping to change this discrepancy. We know no consistent way of defining small and rural districts exists in current federal law. We know that districts with small enrollments do not benefit at the same level as their suburban counterparts. We know these districts can’t afford to hire whiz-bang grants writers because their budgets are already stretched too thin. And we know that federal formulas are based on poor children, students with disabilities, enrollment counts or a combination of these factors.

In addition, we know that minimum grants in federal programs prevent many small schools from gaining any funds since they would receive under $7,500, which is the cutoff for many federal programs.

Yet we also recognize that small, rural schools are closely connected to parents and communities. Since enrollments are low, students feel more connected to their educational experiences. Class sizes are relatively small so closer attention is paid to each student, yet advanced and vocational courses may not be offered because of lack of funds.

Test scores of students in small communities approach those of suburban students and if one factors out the economic discrepancies, the test scores of small towns and the suburbs are even.

Some of the most innovative curriculum is coming out of small towns. Small school districts are using the Internet to create E-commerce (the use of the Internet to promote local trade). They are working on intergenerational projects to preserve their community’s history and they are pursuing other successful programs one never hears about because television cameras don’t reach that far.

AASA's Proposal
This is the year of reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This is the year to change the outlook of small schools by Washington insiders. By investing a few million dollars into our smallest schools (those with fewer than 600 students), we can reach students where federal funds never may have reached before.

Most rural schools do not see significant funds from programs such as Safe and Drug Free schools, Education for the Homeless, Eisenhower or Title 6, which funds innovative educational programs. Moreover, most rural schools will not be able to participate in the president’s new initiative to hire 100,000 teachers because of the legislation’s fine print. It states if a school district would not receive the equivalent in funds of a full-time teacher, that district will not receive funds at all unless it pools resources with one or more neighboring districts.

With these factors in mind, AASA will lobby this year for a new program designed specifically to aid these rural, low-population districts. Local schools and communities will decide how best to target the program and at which grade levels.

Under our proposal, districts would purchase services to implement the best practices. They may join or form a cooperative for best results. They will be held accountable and they will succeed with a little help from Uncle Sam, AASA and our close allies.

Kari Arfstrom is a policy analyst at AASA.