Paul Hill On Rural Edu: Third In A Series! Resource Constraints In Rural Education

Note: The Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho (ROCI) has published ten papers over the last six months, looking at important issues in rural education. This is the third in a series of four blog posts that examine key themes that have emerged from our work. Previous posts are available lower on the page. 

Reports from the ROCI task force are available at Stay up-to-date on future publications by following on Twitter: @ROCIdaho

The final blog post will discuss how reforms that have emerged nationally can be thoughtfully applied to the special circumstances of rural K-12 education.


By Paul Hill

Rural schools are highly constrained, both in the resources that receive from state and local sources and in the ways they are required to spend money. As a result schools have difficulty recruiting all the teachers they need, especially in science, mathematics, and education for limited-English speaking children. Localities forced to cut spending can be forced to cut instructional time and student services rather than change staffing patterns or cut the costs of compliance and record keeping. Rural schools need much more flexibility in how they staff themselves, use funds, find talent, and experiment with online technology. Regulations and mandates from policymakers and administrators who think they know the answer to rural schools’ problems, e.g. to hire particular people or use particular online courses, are steps in the wrong direction.

Idaho is an example of a state in which the very low rate of spending on K-12 limits what schools can provide. Some efficiencies are possible, but a combination of very low spending levels and continuing cuts in state and local support can be crippling. Wealthier urban areas around Boise can generously supplement school budgets, in ways that poorer rural communities can’t match. This puts rural schools at a disadvantage in the competition for talented educators, consistent with Dan Player’s report.

Moreover, the fact that virtually all the money available to rural districts is tied up in salaries means that schools are inflexible and slow to change. In many cases, districts can change their instructional programs only when a tenured teacher retires and frees up some money.  When the local teaching force is stable and no one’s performance is problematic, district leaders have few options.

Localities that can’t maintain local levies or that experience population decline, have it much tougher. Many have tried to maintain their current teaching staffs and class offerings by cutting the school week to 4 longer days (presumably cutting costs of bussing, utilities, and nonprofessional staff). But further declines in population or funding could force real reductions in course offerings and teaching staff. At the limit, some districts must consolidate schools, merge with other districts, or switch to blended or online instructional models.

Districts that experience significant population growth also face challenges. Some are financial, if state funding lags behind student enrollment, so that the same staff and school facilities must serve more children. But even when funding grows, rural districts can have difficulty meeting the needs of new students, especially if their needs are different from previous students.  As Ed Kissam’s paper shows, districts serving large groups of new Hispanic students have difficulty finding teachers with appropriate language skills. Some localities also struggle to develop instructional programs that take account of Hispanic children’s prior learning levels and motivation. The latter challenge is particularly severe for high school age Hispanic students, who disengage and drop out at far higher rates than the Anglo children districts traditionally serve.

Given limited capacities, local reluctance to increase spending, and the “otherness” of the new Hispanic students, school and district leaders can find it hard to offer what students need.  Sperry and Hill’s superintendent interviews also revealed that Hispanics living in residential enclaves are reluctant to vote in levy elections and assert themselves in local board meetings. In such cases the superintendent can be alone in pressing their case.

Andy Rotherham makes the case forcefully: federal programs give rural schools relatively little money, don’t improve their freedom of action, and yet require them to do a great deal of recordkeeping. This costs money. Compared to larger urban districts, rural schools must devote a higher proportion of federal funding to recordkeeping and compliance. These issues can dominate the time of vital district leaders, usually the superintendent.

Rural superintendents also note that the No Child Left Behind “Fully Qualified Teacher” Provision made it difficult for districts with few staffing options to employ generalists who could teach subjects in which they were not formally certified.  Sperry and Hill heard similar complaints about state programs. Many were relieved, for example, that Idaho statewide initiatives that would put further earmarks on state funds were defeated in 2013.

As Marguerite Roza’s research shows, small rural districts are capable of innovating in ways that make the most of their limited resources. But to do that they must be free to redirect funds, invest in new ideas, and adapt in light of evidence. Every state limits flexibility and problem solving via regulations about class size minima, mandatory school staffing patterns, student seat time, the teaching of particular courses separate from all others e.g. state history, mandatory salary scales, set-asides for professional development, etc.

These requirements protect some interests, e.g. colleges of education, but they prevent experimentation with time, money, and methods that can make schools productive and adaptable. Unfortunately, until now no one has made the case for flexibility as a necessary condition for rural school survival and success. In future ROCI task force publications we will further illustrate ways in which rural schools need and can use flexibility, and we will suggest how they can get it.

Paul Hill is the chair of the ROCI task force, a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell, and former director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

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