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How can we revive rural Georgia and its schools?

In many of the major education debates underway in Georgia and nationwide, rural areas sit on the sidelines. The innovations under review — charter schools, vouchers or tax credits for private school scholarships — seem as unlikely to spring up in their communities as a Starbuck’s or Pottery Barn.

Most rural districts are too small or remote to draw the powerhouse charter school networks, which focus on urban districts that offer higher funding, more students and a deeper teacher pool. If a rural area has a private school option — any many don’t — the school sometimes has a legacy of segregation, and is not necessarily stronger than the public school, especially for students who need special education services.

Despite educating nearly 380,000 Georgia children, rural schools draw little discussion under the Gold Dome. A new report, “Why Rural Matters,” by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rural School and Community Trust suggests that neglect comes with a price. The Trust ranks Georgia sixth among the 10 states facing the great challenges in its rural schools, based on performance, funding and demographics.

“With nearly 380,000 students, if we forget about rural Georgia, then we are forgetting about a big piece of the state,” said Alan Richard, board of trustees chair for the Rural Trust and the former Atlanta-based communications director for the Southern Regional Education Board.

Rural Georgia’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — a standardized test known as the Nation’s Report Card — is among the country’s lowest. (Except for one bright spot, 4th grade reading is near the national median). Georgia also falls short in the rate of rural high school juniors and seniors taking the SAT or ACT, 37.6 percent.

Georgia has the nation’s fifth-lowest rural graduation rate and eighth-lowest for rural students from low-income families. Only one college readiness measure (rural participation in AP classes) is above the national median.

“We need to start putting together an authentic plan of what can be done to address and solve these situations, and understand what the future holds for these schools and communities if this trend continues,” said Allen Fort, superintendent/principal in Taliaferro County K-12.

In Georgia, rural poverty appears a greater factor in poor school performance than most states. The report notes: “Only two states, Georgia and Mississippi, are in the highest quartile for percent of students eligible for subsidized meals and also in the quartile with the lowest rural poverty graduation rates.”

“Poverty in Georgia affects smaller districts in several ways — one is the smaller tax base that funds local systems, another is the increased costs associated with instructional supports needed for students that come from poverty-stricken families,” said former Pelham City, Ga., superintendent Jim Arnold. “More instructional support means a greater need for individual and small group instruction. Placing these students in classes of 30-35 students without additional resources guarantees academic failure. Higher costs in other areas means the continuation of the trend of cutting PE, art and music classes that make a unique difference in the lives of students that don’t get much, if any, of that at home. While money alone does not solve all these issues, the lack of it perpetuates the effects of poverty on smaller systems and schools and ensures lower graduation rates, higher dropout rates and the continuation of the cycle of poverty for at least the next several generations.”

“State funding continues to lag behind inflation and the austerity cuts, while reduced, continue. Since 2003 the state has underfunded public schools by over $9.2 billion. These cuts are magnified in smaller rural districts.  A new funding formula is needed with the focus of its construction not on saving money but on providing a quality education for all Georgia students regardless of where they live,” said Arnold.

Rural districts are teetering under the pressure of increased health care costs and the state’s transferring of more transportation expenses to them. “State funding for transportation has steadily decreased for years and the costs have shifted to local systems. Drivers, buses, maintenance and fuel costs have increasingly become dependent on non-existent local fund,” said Arnold.

The General Assembly is again trying to revitalize rural Georgia, but the obstacles, outlined last month at the first session of a new House Rural Development Council, are daunting. Among those highlighted:

•There are 11 counties in Georgia that had higher populations in 1860 than they had in 2010.

•Because of the exodus of residents to other areas, rural counties lose $71 million in income every year.

•Rural counties had just 22 percent of the state’s jobs in 2014, while the Atlanta region and the state’s 13 “hub cities” saw 90 percent of all job growth from 2007 to 2014. (Here is a link to a sobering report about jobs in Georgia, including the fact that 8 of Georgia’s 10 largest occupations are low-wage jobs that pay workers too little to support a family of three. )

The state has to address inequities between well-resourced suburban schools and their rural counterparts. Technology has to be harnessed to deepen instruction and curriculum and internet connectivity extended to the 25 percent of rural Georgia households without it. Districts must expand grow-your-own programs that identify and encourage local teacher candidates as early as high school but also better market the advantages of rural life to potential hires.

Taliaferro superintendent Fort says graduates of rural schools who go onto college “may never return, or those who just want a job leave, because there are few jobs to have and little housing in these counties. We must address these several rural school issues to ensure that these students are getting the same type of quality education through teachers and facilities, develop an intrinsic motivation to succeed, and have a future that provides opportunity and choice of jobs and places to live.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.