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Arizona’s rural students are diverse, poor and many are trailing academically, and a new report finds that the schools they attend have the second highest needs of any state in the nation.
Why Rural Matters, a 50-state report released today by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rural School and Community Trust, describes inequities in funding and opportunity that are leading to significant gaps in opportunity and achievement. The report urges state and federal leaders to make rural students and their communities a far greater priority. Along with a state snapshot, the report also provides analysis of STEM, early education, English-language learner programs in rural school districts and offers solutions.
Approximately 135 of Arizona’s 223 school districts are considered rural by the Arizona Rural Schools Association. They serve about 35 percent of all students in the state, according to Don German, ARSA’s executive director.
Are Arizona’s rural legislators losing focus?
German said legislators, particularly those from rural areas, need to focus more on policy that will help students in rural schools, and stand up against those that are inequitable and disproportionately favor districts in metropolitan areas.
“Local rural legislators are buckling to the pressure put on them by the governor and urban and suburban legislators and end up voting against what is best for rural education,” he said.
He cites as examples Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, the voucher-style program that was expanded this year and allows parents to receive state funds for private schools, and results-based funding, which rewards high-performing schools with additional state dollars. Results-based funding was touted by Gov. Doug Ducey and passed by the Legislature in the state budget for fiscal year 2018.
“ESAs are not beneficial to rural Arizona because there is no other choice for most students than their local public school, so funding to make it the best possible place for an education should be a priority,” said German. “Results-based funding only works in a totally even playing field for all students and rural students are already starting behind.”
‘A national emergency’
The new edition of Why Rural Matters provides an overall “priority” ranking of the 50 states, showing the greatest needs in rural education. The report also ranks the states and includes state-by-state data on demographics and poverty, student achievement, state resources, and college and career readiness.
“While some rural schools thrive, far too many rural students face nothing less than a national emergency. Many rural schools and districts face vastly inequitable funding and simply cannot provide the opportunities that many suburban and urban schools do,” said Robert Mahaffey, the executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust, based in Washington, D.C.
Rural schools offer many attributes of quality schools that parents want for their children: smaller settings, personal attention, and a strong sense of community and identity. But many rural schools and students face serious challenges, the report shows.
Diverse, poor and trailing academically
A statistical snapshot of Arizona’s rural schools and students provided in the report illuminates the issues the state’s schools are facing.
More than half of all rural students are minorities, making Arizona’s rural student populations one of the most diverse in the nation. The national average is 25.2 percent. Nearly seven in 10 live in poverty, and one in 20 is a non-native English speaker.
Spending on instruction is the nation’s second lowest at nearly $1,500 per pupil below the national average.
Academic outcomes are poor, with rural NAEP performance below those of nearly all other states. On three of five measures of college readiness (rural high school graduation rate, rural minority high school graduation rate, and rural ACT/SAT participation), Arizona ranks among the 10 lowest performing.
The greatest needs and challenges facing Arizona’s rural public schools are a lack of highly qualified and highly effective teachers, broadband access for technical education and curriculum delivery to help overcome isolation issues, and a need for more experienced and effective administrators to work with school boards “that may not see the whole picture,” said German.
Out of sight, out of mind?
German said he hopes state leaders will make it a point to learn more about the unique needs of rural schools through school visits and face-to-face meetings with superintendents of rural school districts.
“When we try and have legislators from urban and suburban districts see rural Arizona they want to make the trip as close to Phoenix as possible,” he said. “The more exposure legislators have to rural areas, the more we find them to be supportive.”
Key findings: Why Rural Matters
Lots of students are rural. Nearly 8.9 million students attend rural schools—more than the enrollments of the New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago—and incredibly, the nation’s next 75 largest school districts combined. More than one in four schools are rural, more than one in six students attend schools in rural areas, and more than one in four rural students is a child of color. At least half of public schools are rural in 13 states.
Many districts are very small. Half of rural school districts in 23 states have enrollment smaller than 485 students (the national median enrollment for rural districts).
Most rural students live in big states. Half the nation’s rural students live in just 10 states. The largest rural enrollments are in Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Alabama, Indiana, and Michigan.
Achievement is impressive overall—but low in some states. On average, student achievement in rural schools is comparable to those in suburban areas on the Nation’s Report Card (the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP). Even still, scores are lowest for rural students in New Mexico, Mississippi, Alabama, Hawaii, and Louisiana.
Rural readiness varies. Measures of students’ preparedness for higher education and career paths are mixed nationally. A majority of rural 11th and 12th graders in Ohio take one or more Advanced Placement course, but only 5 percent do in Louisiana. Fewer than one in four rural juniors and seniors take the SAT or ACT in California and Oregon.
Diversity is substantial. Rural America’s demographics are changing like those of many places across the country. The majority of rural students identify as nonwhite in several states, including California. In New Mexico, 85 percent of rural students are children of color, the highest rate in the U.S.; the state also has the highest rate of students from low-income families at 85 percent. Nevada has the nation’s highest mobility rate for rural students at 17 percent—followed by Oregon and Colorado.
Resources and equity are elusive. Resources for rural schools often are still a major problem. Per-student investment for rural students is lowest in Idaho and Oklahoma, each spending less than $4,400 per rural student, and highest in Alaska and New York, each spending roughly $12,000 per student. Rural educator pay is often low, despite challenges in finding and keeping quality educators. Salary averages are lowest in Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas, and highest in Alaska and New York.
Rural areas lack of early childhood programs. Most of the top 10 overall “priority” states enrolled no more than 12 percent of their 4-year-olds in public pre-K classes — including South Dakota, Nevada, Alaska, Mississippi, and Arizona, all of which enrolled 6 percent or less of eligible preschool students.