guest perspective

Rural Americans helped elect Donald Trump, but his ideas won’t help their schools. What will?

PHOTO: Alan Richard
The school in Bethune, Colorado, is among the rural schools and districts across the U.S. that struggles to find the resources to operate.

Rural and small-town voters helped Donald Trump win the White House this month. Some of those voters are now counting on him to bring change to their communities.

Whether that happens will be determined, in large part, by education. But rural schools often get little attention from our nation’s leaders, even though nearly 9 million students attend them — more than the enrollments of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and, incredibly, the next 75 largest school districts combined.

The challenges students face in many of those rural places are equally staggering. In 23 states, more than half of all rural students are from low-income families, the forthcoming Why Rural Matters report shows. Two years ago, that was true of only 16 states.

As the chair of the board of the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust and a longtime education reporter, I’ve spent much of my career visiting these schools. And the central idea Trump has offered so far for improving education — providing billions of dollars in exchange for expanding school choice — makes little sense in most of those communities.

Rural students and families often have no viable choices beyond their local public school. That’s especially true for children of color in the rural Southeast, Southwest, and on Native American lands. In these areas, the next-closest school can be very far away. Trump’s vouchers, therefore, would rarely be a reasonable option. Charter schools aren’t prevalent in rural areas either, and likely never will be, given the expense of running isolated schools.

So if Trump’s school choice plans would have little impact on rural America, how could he and other leaders make an impact in the thousands of schools in places that supported him the most? What do they really need?

First, financial resources are flat-out scarce in many rural schools, and that leads to a far lower quality of education for students in poor communities.

If you don’t believe it, just go where I have in recent years. There’s Carrollton, Mississippi, where the county schools superintendent surrendered most of his own salary to help keep his destitute district afloat. No one there has ever discussed offering Advanced Placement courses.

The chicken-coop-turned-locker-room.
The chicken-coop-turned-locker-room.

When a mother in the all-black public schools there asked the school board to consider upgrading the old chicken coop her son’s high school football team used for a locker room, a white board member’s response was: If folks didn’t like it, maybe they didn’t need a football team. Meanwhile, Mississippi lawmakers disregarded a majority of voters statewide to increase basic school funding — by requiring more than a simple majority vote.

In Bethune, Colorado, about three hours east of Denver near the Kansas line, roughly 130 students attend school in a district that’s virtually bankrupt from state-imposed caps on local taxes. There were no foreign languages taught when I visited in 2015, despite a growing Hispanic community. They had art only because a child’s grandfather volunteered to teach it.

These communities are far from big urban and suburban school districts that spend generously on a per-student basis, and they need more money from the federal government and from their states. The funding in Trump’s plan could make a big difference: There’s often no other way for these schools to offer the classes and services students need. But tying those benefits to school choice doesn’t make sense. These districts can barely afford to operate the schools they have.

(Trump could also work to funnel a greater share of federal education funding to rural and small-town areas. But it won’t do the country much good to slash education budgets for other areas, and if his massive tax cuts bleed away the federal budget, it could harm students everywhere.)

A less-discussed, but no less important, issue is racial segregation, which continues to have a catastrophic impact on some rural schools.

In Summerton, South Carolina, population 1,000, where the first and most important of the cases that formed Brown v. Board of Education began, the public schools serve mainly African-American students while a small private school serves mainly white students. It’s been that way since the 1970s, a few years after court-mandated desegregation finally reached most majority-black communities in the South.

Hundreds of small private academies, once founded for the purposes of segregation, continue to thrive in the Black Belt from the Carolinas into Texas. Many white families in these areas have already made their own school choice, and vouchers in these communities would only subsidize this divide.

Schools can’t thrive, and school choice won’t work, without people grappling with this pervasive issue. We need new conversations about racism and the impact of such segregation — as do gentrifying urban and changing suburban areas. As the Hispanic population grows in the rural West, Midwest, and South, this will matter even more.

Trump, given his rhetoric about minorities and immigrants, can’t lead this conversation. So it will be up to local and state leaders, educators, and families to foster deeper dialogue. This isn’t easy, but I’ve seen powerful connections built across race and class through the Rural School and Community Trust’s programs, among others. In my experience, many students and adults are eager to discuss it given the opportunity.

A few other specific steps that could help rural schools:

  • Fixing Title I: Most poor small-town and rural districts receive less money per student under the federal Title I program than larger districts do — even when those larger districts have lower poverty rates, as U.S. News & World Report recently highlighted. Understandably, larger school districts have opposed changes to those formulas. But many of those districts have a greater ability than rural systems to make up for cuts through local taxes or by shifting other resources.
  • Encouraging new early childhood approaches: Child poverty rates are actually higher in rural areas than in urban areas, exposing many students to the “toxic stress” that researchers say inhibits brain development. But many rural children lack access to high-quality early health and education programs. While President Obama has championed universal pre-kindergarten, home-visiting health and education programs are just as promising. The Trump administration could pursue “social impact” funding for such efforts, a strategy House Speaker Paul Ryan and Obama actually agree on.
  • Addressing the shortage of educators: Many rural schools can’t offer the same salaries for teachers and principals than those in wealthy areas. This exacerbates shortages of quality educators, especially in science, math, foreign languages, and special education. I often think of the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, which serves about 1,800 students across a region the size of Minnesota. While an extreme example, it’s real — and many less remote places also struggle to find the educators they need. More innovation within grow-your-own rural educator programs, and more specialized teacher preparation for rural schools, would help.
  • Improving high-speed Internet access: In an age when many urbanites work wherever they carry their laptop, many rural communities lack adequate Internet speed. That makes it harder to provide a high-quality education and harder to attract teachers those districts need.
  • Pushing community-based learning: Higher academic standards and more challenging courses may help to boost the quality of education for rural students. “Place-based learning” can accomplish a lot, too. This strategy encourages students and educators to assess local challenges and then build project-based lessons to address them. The federal government may offer funding for these programs under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, but must ensure that rural districts have help to apply for any grants.

Rural children deserve this and more from all of us — and especially from the leaders their families have put into power.

Alan Richard is a veteran education writer, formerly of Education Week and the Southern Regional Education Board, and he currently chairs the board of the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

you say you want a resolution

Denver school board strikes back at Trump budget, Betsy DeVos’s school choice vision

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Take that, Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos.

The Denver school board on Thursday approved two resolutions jabbing at President Trump’s first proposed education budget and Education Secretary DeVos’s vision of school reform.

Trump’s budget, the resolution says, would slash funding for a range of programs that help Denver students, including after-school programs, financial aid and Medicaid.

More notable was the DeVos-focused resolution, called “A Resolution in Support of School Choice – Emphasis on Equity and Accountability.”

DeVos started it, essentially, suggested at a Brookings Institution event that the district was not worthy of recognition as a school choice leader because private school vouchers aren’t offered.

The board is trying to draw a stark contrast between DeVos-style reforms and those carried out in Denver Public Schools over the past decade. It reads, in part:

“(T)he Board of Education does not support private school vouchers, which would encourage public education dollars to be spent in private schools that do not serve all students and that are not held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools, but believes instead that public dollars should be used to support and grow public schools, both district-run and charter, that are open to and serve all students.”

Board members were more pointed in their comments during Thursday’s board meeting.

“We are witnessing an assault on public education in this country, both through the budget and the appointment of what I think most of us would agree is the least qualified secretary of education ever appointed to that office,” said board member Mike Johnson.

Board member Happy Haynes said there “have been many who have been trying to associate the work we have done, the careful work that we have done” with the Republican administration.

“We’re not going to quit. We’re not quitters,” Haynes said. “ … It’s the time to double down, and that is what we are doing tonight on this resolution.”

The resolution also amounts to a pre-emptive strike ahead of what should be a contentious school board campaign. Opponents of the incumbent school board members are all but certain to try to link them to DeVos and Trump, not exactly popular figures in heavily Democratic Denver.

van wert alert

Four things to know about Van Wert, the tiny Ohio school district where DeVos and Weingarten will form an uneasy duo

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Carderock Springs Elementary in Bethesda, Maryland in March.

A small city in rural Ohio will host a high-stakes education summit on Thursday when U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits with the chief of a national teachers union who this week vowed to “educate” her.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten opposed DeVos after President Donald Trump nominated her for education secretary and called it “a sad day for children” when she was confirmed. But the political enemies still agreed to visit schools together once DeVos took office, and Weingarten chose Van Wert as their first stop.

Van Wert’s schools “do project-based learning, have grappled with rural poverty, schools that engage in children’s well-being, and that’s why we wanted her to see it,” Weingarten told Chalkbeat earlier this week, as her union launched a push to get DeVos to redirect federal funds toward public schools.

Here’s what you need to know about why the pair is headed to Van Wert and what they might see there.

  1. It’s in “Trump country.” That’s what Weingarten told Chalkbeat about why she selected the district for the visit, which marks the first in-person interaction between the two education leaders. Van Wert is just a 20 minute drive from Indiana, home of Vice President Mike Pence, and about an hour from Michigan, DeVos’s own home state. Nearly 80 percent of the 13,000 votes cast in the county in November’s election went to Trump, who did well in rural and post-industrial areas with weak economies and mostly white populations. More than 90 percent of Van Wert county residents are white, according to Census data.
  2. It also has a vibrant teachers union. The school choice foundation DeVos ran before becoming secretary was named American Federation for Children in a not-so-subtle critique of the teachers union Weingarten leads. That might not go over well with the 127 members of the AFT’s local chapter, which is led by Jeff Hood, a Van Wert physical education teacher. He told the Toledo Blade that he had asked Weingarten to bring DeVos to town. He told the newspaper: “I thought, ‘Here we go; Mrs. DeVos is now our secretary of education’ and you know the best way for me to join in the conversation is to see how I can personally invite her to come to Van Wert.”
  3. DeVos won’t be able to talk only about school choice. The education secretary made her career lobbying for choice, particularly to allow students to use public money to pay for private schools. Since becoming secretary, she’s pivoted to the topic frequently, praising leaders from Miami, New York, and Chicago for providing access to a range of school and course options. Her focus on choice won’t work in Van Wert, which unlike many urban districts does not have a range of options for families to choose from. The small city has only one elementary, one middle, and one traditional high school — along with a public alternative school for struggling students and a small Catholic elementary school.
  4. But Van Wert is home to one innovative option. At Vantage Career Center, high school juniors and seniors from the local district and a dozen others can learn industrial mechanics, welding, carpentry, and other skills while earning a diploma from their traditional school. According to a 2014 promotional video, the center is a 190,000-square-foot space that voters have helped fund, even during the recession. Forty percent of students who train at the center go on to college, while the majority head straight to jobs or apprenticeships in the community or the military, according to the center.