Sequestration cuts deep in underfunded rural schools

By Colleen Flaherty, NEA

Daniel Swearingen is a bus driver in Lapwai, Idaho, a rural community with just 1,100 residents. He drives on steep and unpaved roads in an 11-year-old bus, which for many of his students is the only way to get to school.

“We have no money for a new school bus,” said Swearingen. “This bus has 150,000 miles on rough roads and it’s worn out. Our students deserve a better and safer ride to school.”

This is just one example of the unique and frustrating challenges this country’s underfunded rural schools face. As the sequester cuts take effect, $9 million will be cut from funding set aside for rural schools alone. These schools will also face massive cuts to programs such as Title I funding for low-income schools and IDEA for special education, on top of general funding for staffing and resource needs.

About 301,000 Michigan students attend rural schools, according to the Rural School and Community Trust.

Some programs, such as special education, are already at a disadvantage in rural schools.

Dawn Conway works for a special education cooperative that serves 11 school districts in a rural Illinois county.

“The county is 60 square miles in both directions, which requires a great deal of travel not only for staff to provide services but also for students in order to have access to both special education services and vocational training,” Conway said.

“We already operate at a disadvantage as Internet connection is not reliable, transportation funding has been cut, and the staffing reductions that have already been made over the past few years have put our districts and our cooperative in a position of doing a great deal more with less,” Conway said.

“The push for higher standards and increased accountability will be a huge challenge with limited resources and inadequate technology access,” she said.

Rural schools will also suffer from sequester cuts to federal aid programs for low-income schools such as Title I, which will be cut by more than $740 million, including $45.5 million in Michigan.

According to the Rural School and Community Trust, two in five U.S. rural students live in poverty, an increase of nearly one-third in nine years. The rural poverty rate is even higher in Michigan, where 37.9 percent of rural students live at or below the poverty line.

Beverly Scherr works for a school in Odessa, Wash., a town with less than a thousand residents. The poverty rate there has risen dramatically and her school now qualifies for Title I funding.

“As our needs have increased, our resources have decreased,” said Scherr. “We are expected to provide more and better interventions for these struggling students. At the same time, we are expected to prepare students for new rigorous national test standards, including more needy children, with fewer resources to prepare them.

“Education needs to be perceived as an investment, not an expense,” Scherr said.

Rural schools are also serving a growing number of students. Rural district enrollment has risen by more than 22 percent, an increase of 1.7 million students. Over the same period, non-rural enrollment grew by only 1.7 percent. This growing population has been met with fewer and fewer resources for many of these schools.

“Our school, like many other rural schools, faces the problems of poverty, limited funding, a difficult time attracting and retaining young teachers, difficulties offering a variety of classes and offering arts in elementary school,” said Carol Schnaiter, an educator at a rural school in Illinois. “I worry about how many more cuts our school district can handle.

“If the funding for rural schools is cut more, I worry that more schools will need to consolidate,” Schnaiter said. “This of course would increase the travel time for students and raise the transportation fund. It would be a no-win situation for everyone.”