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Why are Georgia's rural students overlooked?

Georgia has the nation's third largest rural school population, yet few of the education proposals coming out of Atlanta benefit those nearly 380,000 students. Rural children represent 22 percent of Georgia's 1,756,553 public school students.

Why are their needs overlooked?

Because the easy answers favored by legislators -- charter schools, tax credits, vouchers --- don’t address the complex interplay of problems that thwart rural schools and students. Among the challenges: disappearing jobs, diminishing health care and flagging infrastructure.

At a media forum Friday sponsored by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a comment was made that the biggest game changer for rural communities would be parents with good-paying jobs. That would enable the parents to be home for dinner to ask their kids about their day and get involved more in their children's school lives. While education is critical to building a solid middle class, the state also needs policies that support strong families.

Another major challenge: Finding qualified teachers, as detailed by a rural superintendent in a note to me this week. He wrote:

Our entire state is in the midst of a teacher shortage, quickly approaching a crisis stage.  The future of our state is directly dependent on those who work in these classrooms and administrative offices because they give our children the appropriate education needed to successfully function in what is now a very competitive global society.

We want to mandate, measure and compare assessment, and have as the holy grail of education the ultimate achievement of high graduation rates (which is fine), yet in the end do very little to ensure the continuous supply of enough college graduates to fill the classrooms with quality educators in a growing prosperous state.…Just look at the decrease in the number of teachers who graduated 20/10/5 years ago, how many left the profession after three to five years, then add the growth of our state, especially in school-age children. Those hard facts will tell you how critical this shortage is.

I cannot even describe the difficulty to get teachers to rural systems. Only one certified teacher lives in my county. The nearest doctor, grocery store or hospital is 20 miles away. There are no neighborhoods/subdivisions of homes, no trailer parks, and only one set of apartments -- there are no places to live to attract people.

At the media forum, the Georgia Partnership unveiled its annual top 10 education issues to watch. Rural schools made the 2018 list. Here are some of the troubling trends that GPEE found impedes rural Georgia and its schools. You can read the full GPEE report here.

Lack of healthcare: Georgia has seen four rural hospitals close since 2010. This is partially due to the population migration from rural to suburban and urban communities. However, lack of access to medical insurance is also a factor. Rural Georgians are less likely to have health insurance, a factor that both inhibits people from going to the doctor outside of emergency situations, and cuts into payments hospitals receive for the care they provide...Georgia’s uninsured population tied for third-highest in the nation at 13.1% or 1,388,000 people, located overwhelmingly in rural parts of the state. About one in four children in Georgia is living in a home with an income at or below the federal poverty level, and more than 60% of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—more than 1 million children in Georgia are part of one or both of those groups. For these students, access is the number one challenge in addressing their health care needs: Access to insurance, access to nutritious food, and access to physical and mental health care are all more difficult for economically disadvantaged students.

Changing demographics: Some populations, such as those living in poverty, English language learners (ELLs), and students with disabilities, cost more to educate. Many of these populations are growing across the state, especially in rural areas. As a percentage, Georgia’s rural students represent among the highest in the nation for poverty and for minority students. Not only are rural communities the poorest, rural poverty is growing the fastest. According to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, the population of students with disabilities between 2003–2004 and 2012–2013 only grew in rural communities.

Inadequate funding: While rural districts have been seeing an increase in students requiring greater supports to achieve academically, in recent years state funding for education has shrunk, increasing the financial responsibilities of local governments. Severe austerity cuts put in place by the state hit smaller and more remote school districts hard, as the communities they served had fewer resources to fill in the funding gaps left by the cuts. Since 2015, Georgia’s General Assembly has reversed many of those cuts; however, because of simultaneous changes in the funding system, schools are not seeing the relief this reversal would imply. Specifically, costs associated with student transportation and health insurance for all districts’ non-teaching staff, previously paid for with state dollars, now must be paid through local monies. Thus, while the state has in some way relieved the extreme austerity cuts of the last decade, in other ways it has shifted more of the financial burden of the school system back onto local communities. In rural communities, this burden can be overwhelming, and some districts have teetered on insolvency.

No jobs: While the nation and the state have in many ways recovered from the recession of 2008, that recovery does not impact all communities equally. Georgia ranks as the fourth most economically distressed state in the country, despite the growth and prosperity of Atlanta and other hub cities. Between 2010 and 2015, job growth in rural Georgia was only 3.1%, compared to 10.4% in Atlanta. The projections through 2026 are more striking: Rural job growth is projected to be 1.6%, compared to 11.6% for Atlanta...Across Georgia weekly wages are below the national average. But in many primarily rural counties, weekly wages are half the national average. A wage of $600 per week equates to roughly $31,000 per year, which is below 200% of the federal poverty level for a family of two.

I am uncertain whether the state is willing to make the investment necessary to revive rural communities. I also don't know of any program that has succeeded in not only enticing young physics or computer science teachers to rural areas, but keeping them there for longer than two years.

Any ideas?

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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.