Rural Education Overview
Putting Rural America in Context
Rural communities are home to 14% of the nation’s total population — and 19% of its PreK-12 students — yet for decades, the attention of researchers, policymakers, and the media has largely focused on the challenges and opportunities in the country’s urban centers. That has begun to change in recent years, as these and other stakeholders are becoming more attuned to the unique needs of and challenges facing rural communities and the families who live in them. There are three important truths to keep in mind in exploring rural America.
First, it’s important to note that, while the media and others often talk about “rural” communities as a monolith, there is significant variation among rural places in their demographics, economies, social structures, and education systems. As we discuss briefly in our methodology section, even major government agencies have different definitions and ways to identify “rural” communities. But more importantly, rural places include different types of communities with different needs, ranging from heavily distressed places with limited infrastructure or economic opportunity to those that are “great escapes,” boasting natural resources like mountains or lakes that draw wealthy vacationers. Understanding the nuances of a particular community is critical to taking steps toward any sort of investment or work in a given place.
Second, rural communities face a number of challenges, but they also have unique strengths. Yes, overall, rural America has higher rates of poverty, deep poverty, and intergenerational poverty compared to other geographies. Rural poverty is especially profound among black and Hispanic communities and is higher in rural communities in the South than in other regions of the country. Rural communities tend to have lower educational attainment and lower median incomes than their urban counterparts. In 2017, just 20% of rural residents had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 34% of urban residents. Social challenges, like drug addiction and limited job opportunities, coupled with a lack of access to amenities like health care and educational institutions, further compound the challenges facing rural communities.
All of that said, rural communities also boast a number of strengths that can be harder to achieve in larger, more urban places. Rural communities tend to have higher rates of civic and community engagement, volunteerism, entrepreneurship, and resilience. Schools, faith-based institutions, and small businesses often function as “anchor” institutions in rural communities, tying together residents and creating a strong connection to the community’s history and place. Moreover, community ties and family support systems tend to be stronger in rural communities, where residents tend to value independence and self-reliance. Solutions to some of the challenges in rural America may be more successful if they are designed to leverage these strengths.
Finally, and as the case studies here illustrate, the challenges of rural America have become more salient to the rest of the country in recent years — but they have been salient to rural Americans for a very long time. Indeed, individuals have been working to improve their rural communities for generations. Many stakeholders, and education reformers may be chief among them, have an admirable drive to concentrate their efforts where the need is greatest. In doing so, it is essential to understand and recognize the work that is already underway.
Education in Rural America
Nationwide, 27% of the country’s nearly 100,000 schools are located in rural communities. These schools enroll 19% of the nation’s 50 million public school students. While the vast majority — 70% — of rural students are white, one in ten rural students is black and 14% are Hispanic.
Forty-six percent of students enrolled in rural schools nationwide are eligible for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, though in some states, particularly across the South, these rates are much higher.
In both reading and math, rural students tend to outperform their peers attending schools in cities and towns but lag behind their peers in suburban schools.
Performance on Grade 4 Math NAEP Assessment, by School Location, 2007-2017
Performance on Grade 4 Reading NAEP Assessment, by School Location, 2007-2017
Performance on Grade 4 Math NAEP Assessment, by Race and School Location, 2017
Performance on Grade 4 Reading NAEP Assessment, by Race and School Location, 2017
Performance on Grade 4 Math NAEP Assessment, by Subgroup and School Location, 2017
Performance on Grade 4 Reading NAEP Assessment, by Subgroup and School Location, 2017
The challenges that rural schools face are well documented in research. In particular, rural schools struggle with declining enrollments (that often lead to school closures or consolidations), high levels of student and community poverty, difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers and school leaders, and difficulty providing adequate transportation to students, many of whom must travel long distances. In many cases, rural schools struggle to raise local funds from their limited property tax bases, which is sometimes but not always accounted for in state funding formulas. Low economies of scale and human capital challenges mean that many rural schools struggle to offer robust course options to students, particularly those students looking for specialized or high-level coursework.
And because of the broader community context in which many rural school systems operate, often characterized by limited economic opportunity, they face the additional challenge of “brain drain.” That is, talented students interested in pursuing postsecondary education opportunities often must leave the community to find these opportunities. When they complete their studies, the economic realities of their hometowns often mean they have to find jobs elsewhere. The result is a “hollowing out” of the community, and further perpetuation of economic challenges in these places.
Despite the challenges they face, schools often play a central role in rural communities, bringing together residents for community activities, sporting events, and other civic engagements. Schools are often described by community members as the “hub” or “heartbeat” of a community. When a community’s school closes, it can have a devastating effect. A school closure is a blow not only to the pride and morale of residents, but also to the future business and economic prospects for that community. Especially in rural-remote communities, which may be too small to sustain more than one school option, the idea of a charter school is met with warranted skepticism. As you’ll read in the case studies, however, there are some instances in which rural charters can provide options alongside the district and some cases in which a community can use the chartering mechanism to maintain any school at all.
Charter Schools in Rural America
During the 2016-17 school year, about 800 charter schools operated in rural communities nationwide. Combined, these rural charter schools educated approximately 256,000 students. School-level enrollment varies widely, from as few as five students to many hundreds. Across all of the rural charter schools nationwide, 37% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Sixty-one percent of students are white, 19% are Hispanic, 10% are black, 3% are Asian, and 2% are American Indian.
Racial/Ethnic Demographics of Rural Students
There are many reasons charter schools are relatively scarce in rural communities, accounting for just 11% of all charter schools nationwide. As discussed above, charter schools rely on scale to survive, and often rural district schools barely have enough students to remain open. Many of these communities simply don’t have the population to sustain an additional school. In addition, challenges such as finances, human capital, transportation, and facilities are often more acute for charter schools operating on already-tight budgets. And rural communities often hold skepticism of outsiders, making it difficult for external people and organizations to gain the footing and support necessary to launch a new school.
Finally, the field knows little about the quality of rural charter schools. The limited research that does exist on the quality of rural charter schools suggests that, like charter schools in other geographies, they vary widely in their performance relative to traditional district schools. In New York, for example, charter schools in all locations (urban, suburban, and rural) outperformed local district schools between the 2011-12 and 2015-16 school years. In math, students attending rural charter schools demonstrated larger learning gains than their peers in either urban or suburban charter schools — 86 days of additional learning compared to 34 and 74 additional days, respectively. In reading, rural charter school students experienced 63 additional days of learning compared to their peers in district schools. This is below the 80 days of additional learning experienced by students in urban charters but above the 34 days for students in suburban charter schools.
In both Pennsylvania and Texas, on the other hand, charter school students in most locations (urban, suburban, rural, and town) demonstrated worse outcomes in reading and math than their district peers. In Pennsylvania, between the 2013-14 and 2016-17 school years, only urban charter schools outperformed district schools. In Texas, between the 2011-12 and 2014-15 school years, there was no statistically significant difference between rural charter school students’ test scores in reading and math and their peers in urban charter schools, suburban charter schools, or traditional district schools.
On the question of what makes rural charter schools successful, there’s even less research. Some studies have pointed to approaches that help existing rural charter schools address challenges, like “grow-your-own” human capital pipelines and experiments with four-day school weeks to cut down on transportation costs. But there’s less exploration into the broader community context and the factors that can facilitate charter schools’ success. This website is a starting point for that research.