Sequestration cuts deep in underfunded rural schools

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by Colleen Flaherty

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.

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“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.

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,” said Conway.

“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.

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

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. According to the Rural School and Community Trust, two in five rural students live in poverty, an increase of nearly a third in nine years.

Beverly Scherr works for a school in Odessa, Washington, 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.”

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.

Carol Schnaiter is an educator at a rural school in Illinois.

“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 Schnaiter. “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. This of course would increase the travel time for students and raise the transportation fund. It would be a no-win situation for everyone.”

Reader Comments

  1. I was a special education teacher for 30 years. I learned that students who are not given adequate support to acquire living and vocational skills will end up dropping out and mostly in low paying jobs or not working at all. On the other hand all students regardless of their abilities or disabilities will thrive if given enough support. People complain about those on public assistance and yet they try to take away good educational programs. Without diplomas students are doomed.

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