Part one of a series
Editor’s Note: Rural education leaders reacted strongly to an 2021 article in the New York Times Magazine portraying the struggles of a Mississippi teenager trying to get a good education from a historically troubled rural school district. Although the article’s goals may have been narrower, its structure and title — “The Tragedy of America’s Rural Schools,” written by an editor, not the reporter — made summary judgment on all rural educators and students.
Today we start a three-part series written by members of the National Rural Education Association that attempts to provide a broader view of the nation’s rural schools. The first two writers examine how rural schools’ challenges are not the result of fate or rural people’s personal failings; rather, they stem from public policies that create inequities and hurdles. The third article looks at rural school systems where innovation and leadership have created promising solutions.
A New York Times Magazine article, “The Tragedy of America’s Rural Schools,” tells a story about the educational system in Holmes County, Mississippi, suggesting that the community has failed to provide adequate school facilities, that administrators and teachers have failed to provide sound educational programs, and that the schools have failed to serve their students. The article shines a spotlight on a single student in a single rural school district. There is benefit in turning on a spotlight. It’s important to use the national media to tell stories about Mississippi and the rural schools that serve one-fifth of students across the United States. However, a spotlight illuminates only part of the whole scene. Overhead lighting can reveal a bigger picture–in this case, revealing the impact of state and federal policies that fail to meet the needs of rural schools and the students they serve–including Holmes County, Mississippi.
School funding policies are one of the biggest barriers to rural school success. The bulk of funding for public schools comes from local property taxes. Rural populations, economies, and the presence of public lands (such as national forests) often yield lower property values, which in turn leads to funding inequities for rural schools. In Mississippi, as in most states, millage rates are capped. Even if the local community wanted to, districts cannot raise the property tax rate beyond a certain level to increase school funding, placing rural districts at an even greater disadvantage. Inequitable funding can lead to lower teacher salaries and teacher shortages, limited school offerings, and under-resourced classrooms.
In Holmes County, the limited tax base means that school buildings are out of date and in need of repair. In 2019, the district sought voter approval for a bond issue that would have funded a new high school and freed up money currently going to facility maintenance to allow for a raise in teacher salaries. Nearly half the county turned out to vote, and the majority, 58%, voted to approve the bond issue–but a state law in Mississippi requires at least 60% approval of a bond issue. Other states, including Washington and Oklahoma, have similar requirements. Rules like these make it difficult for a local community to raise funds to provide adequate school facilities for their children–even when the majority of voters approve.
Holmes County Schools were consolidated in 2018, but consolidation has not yet made things better for the students and families that live there. School consolidation–another set of policies imposed on rural schools–almost never makes things better for rural students, teachers, or communities. Under the guise of saving money or increasing efficiency, the overall number of school districts in the United States has decreased over the last century. Bigger, supposedly, is better. Rural schools, with smaller enrollments and lower funding, have been particularly targeted for consolidation–often leading to school closures. School consolidation and school closure generally do not result in anticipated cost savings. Local economies rely on schools–the local gas station that sells fried chicken might get most of their business from teachers and parents stopping by on their way to and from school, and schools (and their sports teams and other programs) are important social and cultural glue. These costs might be worth the price if students in consolidated schools receive better or more educational opportunities, but they don’t.
Finally, it is also important to look at the state and federal policies that culminate in state takeover of schools that are labeled as “failing.” Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, the federal government requires that states use testing to identify schools that are low performing–and to provide support for schools that fail to show growth on standardized test scores. Because of student performance on state tests in Holmes County, the Mississippi Department of Education replaced school leadership with a conservator–an outside administrator brought in for a short period of time to try turn things around. Later the state stopped placing conservators in positions of leadership and instead created the Achievement School District, one state-run district for all “failing” schools. School turnaround models such as these have not yet shown to consistently improve student outcomes or bring about lasting change. Accountability requirements are bolstered by good motives–to ensure that all students have opportunities to learn. But how accountability policies are implemented matters. Rural schools get better when we provide schools with sufficient resources and then work to build local capacity. Rather than state takeovers, we need policies that help local leaders and communities to improve practices.
The way we choose to illuminate our rural schools, the stories we tell about them, can hurt or help. When the stories focus only on tragedy and failure, we can draw the conclusion that there is very little to be done and that failure is inevitable. When we cast a broader light on the root causes and policies that serve as barriers to success, we may begin to see a path forward. Ultimately, policies are choices–and together we can make different and better choices that leverage strengths and dismantle barriers. The millions of students attending rural schools deserve nothing less.
Devon Brenner is a professor of education in Mississippi where she works on issues of rural education policy and practice. Brenner is one of the co-editors of The Rural Educator, journal of the National Rural Education Association.