The Politics of K–12 Education in Small Rural Districts: The Case for Idaho

Samuel R. Sperry, Paul T. Hill – January 2015

Samuel R. Sperry and Paul T. Hill focus this analysis on how the small size and relative intimacy of rural areas affect politics and leadership in K–12 education, and specifically the role of the superintendent as both a school leader and a leader in the wider community. Through interviews with rural superintendents, Sperry and Hill identify common issues that arise in rural K–12 education and how they are resolved. Though their sample was small, consistent findings point to the discovery of important truths about rural education politics and leadership.

The rural superintendent

Rural superintendents face numerous challenges. As district leaders, they are constrained by smaller administrative staff, tight budgets, and a smaller teacher-applicant pool. Those who are new to the community may find it harder to pursue change because people “want to do things the way that they have always been done.” Finally, as community leaders, they cannot be anonymous or leave thinking about the local economy or population change to others, as these are issues that also affect their schools.

Rural politics

To be successful in their jobs, rural superintendents must possess high-end political skills. They must decide which issues to press and which to leave on the table, thinking not only of the day-to-day operations of their schools but also the long-term health of the district.

Sperry and Hill found that rural superintendents’ political skills and ability to reach different constituencies were clearly on display during attempts to pass special levies. These levies are unpopular with rural farmers and with interest groups such as the Farm Bureau. However, rural superintendents must find support in order to provide for district needs. This may mean compromising with budget cuts or conducting major outreach efforts to get out the vote.

Improving the situation

Sperry and Hill offer several ideas that could improve the situation for rural superintendents:

  • Encourage resource sharing by changing restrictions such as class-size requirements
  • Reduce the amount of mandatory paperwork
  • Create regional education service centers to support rural districts
  • Provide incentives, such as sabbaticals, that encourage rural superintendents to stay on the job
  • Increase lawmakers’ familiarity with rural districts

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