When considering reforms to the public education system of America, the conversation tends to revolve around issues facing failing urban, predominantly minority school systems. And, with only a 53 percent high-school graduation rate in America’s 50 largest urban centers according to America’s Progress Alliance, urban school’s place as a topic of high-concern is well deserved and much needed. However, although failing urban schools are in dire need of reform, these considerations should not come at the expense of the often equally troubled school districts found in rural America.
According to research conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rural areas have the lowest percentage of people holding a bachelor’s degree, at 19 percent of rural people holding a bachelor’s compared to 33 percent of Urban people. Much of the discrepancy between percentages of rural and urban college degree holders can be attributed to what is known as “rural brain drain,” which is the mass migration of educated rural people into the cities that offer more stable, higher paying jobs. However, although the brain drain is indicative of the slowly rising levels of individual rural education, this does not solve the problem facing rural public school children. Because rural areas cannot hold on to their educated locals, the problem still persists and rural areas continue to be vastly undereducated. Moreover, the rural brain drain oftentimes keeps educators away from rural areas, preventing students with unique educational needs from having access to teachers who can address those specific needs—needs such as bilingual educators, special education teachers, and other forms of specialized educators.
Unfortunately, a lack of specialized educators is not the only spatial inequality that rural students must confront in the classroom. They are also at a severe disadvantage when it comes to internet access compared to urban students. The lack of broadband infrastructure in rural communities across the U.S. has left 39 percent of rural Americans without “advanced telecommunications ability,” according to the Federal Communications Commission, compared to only 4 percent of the urban population. This digital divide leaves rural students at a massive disadvantage. In an age where news and information are primarily consumed online, and both job and college applications are almost solely done through the internet, a lack of internet access puts rural students on unequal footing when it comes to jobs, college, and education.
Furthermore, rural school children do not have the same level of access to educational resources and organizations as underprivileged urban students. For example, in urban centers, students may take part in multiple after-school activities, such as Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothers and Sisters of America, and similar organizations. But these programs are not always readily available in poor rural communities, and, if they are, due to lack of public transportation and long travelling distances present in rural communities, it is often difficult for children to attend them. According to Susan Frey of EdSource, “When school lets out, many children in rural communities must take a long bus ride home, miles from their nearest neighbor. They don’t play basketball with their friends, do art or science projects with the local community group or get help with their homework. Most go home to families with limited resources, struggling to make ends meet.”
While as of 2016 the rate of rural people living in poverty was 13.3 percent compared to 16.0 percent for their urban counterparts, according to the U.S. Census, the picture changes when looking at the rural versus urban gap by region. Looking at the same census data for the Northeast and Midwest regions, for example, paints a picture of an idyllic rural America—a rural America that may make on average up to $10,000 more per household per year than their urban neighbors. However, when shifting focus to the southeast, a historically impoverished and undereducated region of the U.S., the picture changes. Suddenly, rural America is not so quaint. At an astounding 19.3 percent rural poverty rate (higher than that of national averages for all urban and rural areas) and an even more despairing 24.9 percent child poverty rate according the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the rural south, on paper, looks like the caricature that coastal elitists paint it out to be—a poor, uneducated, and backwards burden to society.
Though the caricature is wrong, the premise is not. As proven by the census data, the rural south is, as a whole, poorer than other regions of the U.S. The rural south is also, indeed, less educated than a majority of the U.S. While deteriorating urban school districts and an uneducated urban work force are met with sympathy and rallying cries from the public for educational justice, rural areas with similar, yet unique, educational issues are mocked for their lack of tutelage. To solve the achievement gap in both rural and urban communities, it is important that we begin to view underprivileged urban and rural students through the same lens, and confront issues facing rural education with the same compassion and seriousness that we do with the urban education gap. Though simply funneling more money and resources into school systems is certainly not an answer to such a complex issue as rural education, increased discussion about how already available resources can better be utilized, as well as broader economic policy that reinvigorates rural areas, can help reverse trends in growing educational and economic instability in rural America.
This piece is adapted from one of the same name featured in the Fall 2017 edition of The Arch Conservative in print.
—Sydney North is Assistant Editor of The Arch Conservative.