Labor Voices: Rural students deserve equal education opportunities

From the Blissfield Royals to the Kingsford Flivvers, local public schools are core to the identity of small towns across Michigan. No matter their differences as individuals, people in rural communities are unified by their local schools and mascots.

But because of inequitable funding, declining enrollment and a lack of concern from some lawmakers, many rural schools find themselves in peril, according to a recent study out of Michigan State University’s College of Education.

Statewide one-size-fits-all education policies have largely ignored rural schools, leaving the one-third of all Michigan students who attend rural schools with fewer opportunities and damaging the vitality of small communities. To fix this problem, state leaders must develop education policies that recognize the unique challenges facing rural public schools.

MSU researchers analyzed data from all of Michigan’s rural school districts; they then selected a representative sample of 25 districts and took a deep dive into each district using surveys, focus groups and interviews with rural superintendents.

Major challenges common among rural districts include educator recruitment and retention, student mental health, and a lack of equitable state funding, school officials reported. These challenges were made worse by the pandemic.

The shortage of educators was among the top concerns identified by rural superintendents, with 80% reporting educator recruitment and retention to be a major problem. Small school districts often don’t receive enough qualified applicants for open positions, due to factors like inadequate pay and geographic isolation, the report found.

Earlier this year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the GOP Legislature came together to pass a record education budget, providing a much-needed increase in support for local schools, as well as new funding for educator recruitment. However, the job is far from finished. State leaders must continue prioritizing public education funding and local districts should focus their funding on increasing educator salaries to reduce turnover and provide students with the trained, qualified educators they deserve.

Rural administrators also cited student mental health as a top concern, one that is compounded by the educator shortage. While the recent education budget also includes significant increases in school mental health funding, there is a massive shortage in school-based mental health professionals like counselors, social workers and psychologists. This shortage is even worse in rural areas, the MSU study reported.

In addition, inequitable funding has long been a problem for rural schools. They receive the same amount of per-student funding as suburban and urban schools, despite it costing significantly more to educate a student in rural areas due to “a lack of scale economies, rural isolation, student transportation and declining enrollment,” the report said.

While reforms are necessary to help rural students succeed, here’s what won’t work: continued efforts by some politicians and special interests to implement Betsy DeVos’ so-called “school choice” agenda, which includes school vouchers and the proliferation of for-profit charter schools. DeVos’ latest voucher scheme, deceptively named “Let MI Kids Learn,” would drain up to $500 million annually from public schools and vital services that help rural areas, for the financial benefit of private schools and the parents whose children attend them.

Such proposals don’t help rural students, because there usually aren’t other school options for rural families. Their local public schools need more resources to meet the needs of their students, rather than having funding taken away for the benefit of private-school students elsewhere.

Small towns are held together by their local public schools, and rural students deserve the same quality of education as every other Michigan student.  Incoming state legislators — especially those representing rural areas — should keep that in mind, and work to address the significant challenges facing Michigan’s rural schools

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Ray Curry, Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights Executive Secretary-Treasurer Tom Lutz and selected Service Employees International Union members.

(Posted as submitted to Detroit News – https://www.detroitnews.com/story/opinion/columnists/labor-voices/2022/12/07/herbart-prioritize-states-rural-public-schools-labor-voices/69705592007/

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