More than one quarter of American students attend rural public schools, yet policy makers have failed to address the particular needs of these smaller, usually impoverished schools, according to the Rural School and Community Trust (RSCT), an advocacy group funded by the Annenberg Foundation.
"The education debate in America is an urban debate," said Marty Strange, RSCT Policy Director and author of a first- of-its- kind survey of rural schools. He says that rural communities, a political backwater, are ignored by policy circles.
"Why Rural Matters: The Need For Every State to Take Action on Rural Education," is a "report-card" styled analysis of the state of rural education in each of the 50-states.
"Our focus is on states. That is still where most of education policy is made," said Strange.
The need to raise performance in schools as part of the standards and accountability movement has made rural schools more relevant to lawmakers.
In seven states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia -- rural education is crucial to the state's overall education performance, the report says. Louisiana was not ranked as crucial, but just barely made it over the bar.
These states have some of the highest percentages of student poverty, teachers are not well paid and adults in these communities are not well-educated. In America, 244 of the nations 250 poorest counties are rural.
But what is rural? Strange says most people would be surprised to learn that New York state is more rural than Iowa, Nebraska or Montana combined. The researchers used the Census Bureau's conservative definition of rural, which is any community under 2,500 people.
In five states, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia and New Mexico there is a large rural population. But because smaller schools have been consolidated into larger schools via busing there are fewer small rural schools in these states. And fewer communities are tied to a local school.
Strange argues in the report that consolidation is a bad policy because smaller classes help impoverished children learn better. The report was funded by the Annenberg Foundation and published by the RSCT, which is an advocacy organization.
Rural education in Alaska, Idaho, Maine, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Vermont was considered critical.
The report says states with minimal rural education problems are Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.
"Visit a fishing village in Maine, a family farm in Iowa, an Inuit village in Alaska, a community in the Mississippi Delta, or a town on the borderlands of the Southwest and Mexico and you will think you are in five different countries," Strange said. "This diversity and the fact that we are a political minority makes the issue complex and difficult for policymakers to get a handle on it."
RSCT plans to release annual surveys on the state of rural education as well as interim reports on policies that effect these schools.