Rural schools remembered

The U.S. Department of Education — if it wins budgetary approval for a third round of Race to the Top — is proposing to do things a bit differently this time. Instead of states competing against one another, individual districts would compete for grants from a $900 million pot — and the Department of Education will set aside a certain (as yet unspecified) amount for rural districts.

“We want to make sure that if we play at the district level that we have a good representation of rural, urban and suburban districts,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a press call on Monday. “We want to make sure that rural districts that may not have a grant writer, may not have the resources of a large urban district, have an absolute chance to compete and to be successful.”

Rural schools serve nine million students in the U.S., or about 20 percent of the nation’s total. Although large urban districts are often highlighted as evidence of academic failure, rural areas have their fair share of problems as well. About a quarter of students in rural areas drop out, and roughly a third of the 5,000 or so schools eligible for federal School Improvement Grants were in rural areas.

The Department of Education was criticized when it handed out School Improvement Grants last year, as members of rural communities argued that the four models for fixing failing schools – turnaround, transformation, restart and closure – didn’t account for some of the specific challenges their areas face, such as difficulty recruiting staff. It’s hard to fire all, or even half, of a school’s teachers when there isn’t a ready supply of other teachers who could be hired.

In March 2010, 22 senators from largely rural states wrote to Duncan, asking that rural schools have an equal opportunity in 2011 to get the competitive grant money, and arguing that reforms such as distance-learning can play a uniquely important role in more remote areas of the country.

Earmarking money for rural districts in a possible third round of Race to the Top seems to be the Obama administration’s way of agreeing with them.