How to solve the 5 toughest challenges faced by leaders of rural schools

Education policy is often skewed toward urban schools, which leaves rural districts neglected, a new report finds.

Education leaders looking to improve the state of rural schools and students are being urged to develop initiatives tailored specifically to the needs of remote districts. One major problem is that policy is often skewed toward urban schools, which leaves rural districts neglected even though they “endure some of the most challenging contexts,” says a new “Educational Opportunities and Community Development” analysis by Michigan State University’s College of Education.

Though the research is focused on Michigan’s education system, its findings should help leaders of rural districts in other states advocate for their schools. These administrators often face heightened challenges in the areas of teacher recruitment and retention, serving students with mental health needs, broadband access, funding and state reporting requirements.

For example, per-pupil costs are often higher in rural schools due to limited economic activity, higher transportation expenses, and declining enrollment. Also, there are far fewer mental health providers in rural communities, which are not a draw for many teachers who are looking for a place to settle down. And state reporting requirements are often a strain on rural administrators because they have much smaller staffs to complete the work compared to urban and suburban districts.

Targeting the five big challenges described above, here are solutions that rural K-12 leaders can advocate for when lobbying for increased state support:

1. Improving teacher recruitment and retention

Michigan’s 2022-23 budget, for example, includes incentives—such as college tuition assistance—for teachers entering the profession. K-12 administrators in Michigan and elsewhere should work with state policymakers to provide additional incentives that would encourage college students to not just choose education as a career but to also accept positions in rural districts.

Grow-your-own programs can be particularly effective in rural districts if they target high school students who are more willing to remain in their community. To sustain these programs, rural administrators would have to encourage regional colleges and universities to offer online or hybrid education programs.

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2. Supporting behavioral and mental health needs

Michigan is among the states that have provided more funding for mental health care in schools. However, rural administrators often have less time to apply for these types of grants. Administrators should advocate for replacing a grant system with per-pupil mental health funding.

Even with extra funding, however, administrators will also have to work with policymakers to expand access to mental health care in rural communities. One of the most effective solutions is school-based health centers, which can be created by district leaders in partnership with community and regional partners.

3. Expanding broadband access

Local control, cooperation and coordination should be the guiding principles in expanding broadband access. Rather than waiting for private internet service providers to win federal funding for broadband expansion, nonprofit entities in rural communities can pool funding and other resources to get it done. Schools, libraries, hospitals and local governments could coordinate with one another to partner with private or public broadband networks willing to expand.

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4. Funding rural schools sufficiently

Michigan had proposed providing rural districts with extra funds based on their smaller enrollments. The researchers suggest that rural administrators push for funding formulas that also take isolation into account. This type of funding would compensate for the scarcity of community resources.

5. Reducing state reporting requirements

“Nitpicky government rules and reporting requirements are a potent and underappreciated source of frustration and discontent in rural areas,” the report says. Rural leaders should push for better designed, less extensive and less time-consuming reporting requirements. They can also advocate for additional funding that is directly tied to easing the reporting burden.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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