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Nearly nine million students attend rural schools — more than the enrollments of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and the nation’s next 75 largest school districts combined. These students in Michigan and around the county face similar challenges, like limited access to advanced coursework, medical care, internet access and employment opportunities.

A report recently released by the American Association of School Administrators (ASSA) and the Rural School and Community Trust highlighted these issues and more faced by rural communities in ensuring students get the quality education they deserve.

On my “Listening Tour” across the state, I’ve spoken with many rural educators about the challenges they face: lower salaries; lack of access to professional development opportunities; professional isolation; preparation for multiple subjects and grade levels as well as multiple extracurricular duties. We must address these challenges so rural schools can continue to retain and attract high quality educators.

Many of the drivers of these issues — the large geographic area of rural districts, the sparsity of students, and distances between home and school — can’t be changed. But providing rural districts with the resources and policy flexibility to address these barriers is something we can control.

The AASA report identifies a key action Congress could take to improve educational options for rural students: expand support for the E-Rate program, which provides funding for K-12 school internet connectivity. This program has transformed many rural districts that were previously underserved by affordable broadband access, due to their geographic isolation and small populations.

More for-profit charter schools, low-performing cyber charters, and school vouchers won’t help these students or communities. In fact, they only exacerbate the problem of inadequate funding in rural districts, just as it has done for their urban and suburban counterparts.

Instead of providing low-quality options, we should invest in these schools and create within them a hub of services and activities that draw the community into the public schools (a solution that will work for urban and suburban schools as well).

Rural and small town schools do more than educate students — they serve as the center of the community’s identity. They serve as the primary employer in small communities. Schools may offer health care or medical referrals for children and adults. Some schools provide breakfast and lunch programs for community members. They also serve as the central location of many other community activities. Building this hub of activity around the community schools makes sense both economically and geographically.

These type of connections strengthen the fabric of a rural community. But they need help. Rural students (and their families) face greater levels of poverty than their peers. Rural districts operate with very low funding. Rural districts receive much less federal Title 1 funding per poor student than urban districts. And, of course, there’s the geographic challenge unique to rural districts. The large area encompassed by rural districts come with increased costs for buses, technology, as well as greater staffing challenges.

Schools are the bedrock of rural communities, providing a sense of identity for local residents. The visceral connection they feel toward their schools is irreplaceable. It is up to policymakers in Congress and state government to act to help rural schools meet the challenges they face. Adequately funding social services to create and expand the community hub model while increasing funding for the E-Rate program to improve internet access would be two steps in the right direction.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

LABOR VOICES

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.

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