Lawmakers Say The Needs of Rural Schools Are Overlooked

By NY Times, NY Times - March 18, 2010

An Oklahoma senator complained that federal rules on teacher credentials had driven thousands of experienced educators out of rural schools. A North Carolina lawmaker complained that formulas for distributing federal education money favored big-city districts at the expense of poor students in small towns.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, center in white shirt, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, holding a binder, in August visited a school in Bethel, Alaska.

And a senator from Alaska wanted to know how school-turnaround strategies based on firing ineffective instructors would work in a remote village on the Bering Sea that she said already had tremendous teacher turnover.

Lawmakers who represent rural areas told Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a hearing Wednesday that the No Child Left Behind law, as well as the Obama administration’s blueprint for overhauling it, failed to take sufficiently into account the problems of rural schools, and their nine million students.

“I’m concerned with the potential impact the legislation has on rural schools, school districts and states,” said Senator Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate education committee.

The administration’s proposals, and especially its strategies for improving failing schools, Mr. Enzi said, “seem to be urban-centered.”

Mr. Duncan, who before going to Washington was chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools, has toured rural schools frequently since taking office, acquainting himself with the challenges they face.

Still, some big initiatives, including the $4 billion Race to the Top grant competition among states, and the administration’s blueprint for rewriting the No Child law, have drawn complaints from rural officials and educators that they reflect an overly urban perspective.

Officials in rural states, for instance, have criticized administration proposals to distribute more federal money to school districts based on competitive grants rather than through per-student formulas, noting that the last thing tiny rural school systems have is staff members with the experience or time to write grant proposals.

“There are lots of bright people at the Department of Education, and they work very hard,” said John Hill, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, based at Purdue University. “But because most have not grown up or worked in a rural area, they find it difficult to see how things work in remote districts.”

In his testimony before the education committee, Mr. Duncan argued that the administration’s blueprint would solve some problems for rural schools, including one related to the No Child law’s teacher-quality provisions. Those require that teachers have a degree in every major course they teach, or pass an exam to prove they are “highly qualified” in that area.

But in remote schools, one teacher might lead classes in history, civics and geography, for example, and Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, said the law had driven many veteran rural teachers into retirement.

The administration hopes to shift the focus from credentials to evaluations of teacher effectiveness, based in part on whether their students are learning, Mr. Duncan said. Teachers’ colleges, he said, could offer special programs to prepare educators for rural challenges.

Mr. Duncan developed some of his ideas last year during a rural tour that took him to the Alaskan village of Hooper Bay on the Bering Sea, a primitive settlement with no flush toilets.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, reminded Mr. Duncan of that visit in asking about his school-turnaround strategies, given that the Hooper Bay school has been on the federal list of failing schools for years, she said.

Three of the administration’s four strategies would involve firing educators, which Ms. Murkowski said would be impractical in Hooper Bay.

“There’s no place to live, there’s no running water,” she said. “These are not conditions most teachers will be able to handle.”

“We already can’t keep good people there,” she added.

Mr. Duncan promised to work to find solutions.

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