WASHINGTON -- Eight Southern states and the Dakotas lead an advocacy group's list of troubled rural K-12 public education. The current national debate on school quality isn't addressing the problem, the group contends.
''This is a wake-up call about rural education in America,'' said Kathy Westra, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust, which works with more than 700 rural K-12 schools in 35 states.
The report was released Tuesday as Education Secretary Richard Riley visited schools along the Mississippi Delta region, trying to focus national attention on rural education.
''School matters to the people of these communities,'' Riley said. ''We need to pull together, in a responsible, bipartisan way, to make sure that every child has access to a quality education.''
One-quarter of the nation's 53 million students attend schools in towns of 25,000 or less, which are considered rural.
Education Department officials circulated the group's report and praised the work that drew heavily from department data.
The report ranked the states based on factors such as teacher pay and state spending, as well as the income and education of parents. The study did not include any assessment of students' academic achievements, such as test scores and grades.
The report said the states in ''urgent'' need of improving rural education were: Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Tennessee, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, West Virginia, Georgia and New Mexico.
Changes are needed in those states mainly because students' parents are among the poorest and least educated, their teachers are the worst paid and their communities are the least able to support school programs, the report said.
All 50 states should improve rural education, said the report, which rated 13 states as having ''critical'' need to improve, 12 as ''serious'' and 13 as ''fair.''
The 1997-98 school year data on which the study was based include pay for rural teachers compared with a state's other teachers, the ratio of teachers to students in rural classrooms, the percentage of rural teachers who taught subjects they were not trained for, the percentage of funding for rural schools that went to school lessons, and the percentage of rural schools that had Internet access.
Westra said state tests vary too widely to compare rural student achievement across state lines, adding that few nationwide tests -- such as college-entrance exams --report scores according to where children live within a state.
''We can make an educated guess that the way things are in various states are affecting the kids,'' Westra said. ''It's a logical conclusion.''
Other findings in the report:
Vermont, West Virginia and Maine have the highest percentages of children in rural schools.
New Mexico and Arizona have the greatest rates of rural child poverty and they spend the lowest percentage of rural education dollars on classroom instruction.
Rural teachers are paid the least in North and South Dakota.
In Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, rural children are most likely to live in households where adults never finished high school.
Westra said rural residents are often too poor or too geographically scattered to draw the same attention received by urban or suburban parents and their children, people who are the focus of the current national debate on education.
Some national trends and proposals meant to help children actually hurt rural students, she said. For instance, in the rush to build new schools with better technologies, some states and districts have closed older, small schools and forced rural children to travel two hours or more to school.
The presidential candidates have included rural children in their plans: Vice President Al Gore has promised to send them quality teachers; Texas Gov. George W. Bush would give them priority for federal programs to boost Internet access.
On the Net:
''Why Rural Matters'' report: http://www.ruraledu.org
Education Department: http://www.ed.gov
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