Federal Education Policy in Rural America

Lars D. Johnson, Ashley LiBetti Mitchel, Andrew J. Rotherham – December 2014

In this report, Lars D. Johnson, Ashley LiBetti Mitchel, and Andrew J. Rotherham explore the intersection—and the mismatch—between federal policy and rural education.

They examine the demographics of rural America and the federal policies that affect rural schools. They also present the results of a survey conducted with Idaho superintendents and national education policy “Insiders” to identify areas of convergence and divergence between the two groups. Finally, the authors identify opportunities for improving education in rural America and offer a set of recommendations for federal policymakers.

Federal policies

The authors divided federal policies into two categories: those targeted at rural areas, such as the Rural Education Achievement Program, and those that have a differential impact on rural areas, such as Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Most rural initiatives, they found, are simply tacked onto other legislation, as if an afterthought. In addition, the paperwork for federal grants is often overwhelming for small rural districts.

Survey findings: Out of touch with rural America

The authors found several points of agreement between rural Idaho superintendents and education policy Insiders:

  • 92 percent of superintendents and 83 percent of Insiders agreed with the statement that “life in rural America is significantly different from life in urban/suburban America.”
  • 86 percent of superintendents and 78 percent of Insiders claimed that most education policies are designed for urban/suburban districts and are a poor fit in rural areas.
  • 66 percent of superintendents and 57 percent of Insiders said that rural education is not important to the leadership at the U.S. Department of Education.

However, there were also areas of disagreement:

  • Superintendents report that their biggest challenges are the inflexibility in spending federal dollars and lack of full federal funding for special education; Insiders believe teacher recruitment and retention are the largest challenges facing rural education.
  • Superintendents reported that cost and quality are the biggest barriers to online learning, while Insiders selected infrastructure and cost.

Conclusions and recommendations

The authors provided several general recommendations for improving rural education:

  • Encourage rural districts to fully embrace blended learning
  • Encourage rural districts to fully embrace administrative service sharing
  • Expand broadband access
  • Attract teachers to rural America
  • Consider the needs of Native students and English-language learners

The authors’ recommendations for improving federal education policies include:

  • Maintain the Rural Education Achievement Program, Impact Aid, and Payment in Lieu of Taxes program
  • Adjust the Title I funding formula to ensure equitable allocations for rural students

Full Report

Executive Summary

Op-Ed by Rotherham and Mitchel in the Idaho Statesman

Blog Post by Andy Smarick

Blog Post by Ashley LiBetti Mitchel