Little School on the Prairie: The Overlooked Plight of Rural Education

The article below is a product of the Harvard Political Review. Review articles and viewpoints expressed are written and edited exclusively by Review undergraduate students, not the staff of Harvard's Institute of Politics.
David Gutierrez


That America’s public education system is characterized by extreme inequality does not come as a surprise to many. Yet when most people think of educational inequality, they think of inner-city schools. Publications like Education Week spend much more time discussing urban schools than rural schools. This disparity in media coverage is understandable—the crumbling infrastructure of cities, the poverty and segregation faced by inner-city students, and the presence of a school-to-prison pipeline are all serious problems that demand reforms. But in a media market where large newspapers and television stations now compete with international media outlets, rural educational issues can be forgotten in the commotion. Many rural school districts face concerns that stem from the current demographic and economic state of rural areas, the lack of technological infrastructure, and the difficulty of hiring and retaining teachers.

Another Kind of Poverty

Like their urban counterparts, many rural residents face extreme levels of poverty. It is no surprise, then, that rural areas struggled to bounce back from the 2008 recession. As a 2014 USDA report explained, the perpetually high unemployment rate stems largely from slow population growth. The economic underdevelopment of rural America and its slow recovery caused the total population of rural counties to decrease as rural residents emigrated to suburban or urban areas between 2010 and 2012.

This poverty contributes to lower educational attainment in rural schools. Only one in 10 people from low-income families attain a bachelor’s degree by the age of 25. Rural districts face an even harder task than their urban counterparts in improving these statistics; at the turn of the century, an urban resident had a 10 to 15 percent higher chance of going to college than a rural resident.

Funding Disparities

Student enrollment drives public school funding, so the fewer students enrolled in a district, the less the funding. Especially in states where there are a greater number of urban districts, urban students receive more than their rural peers. In states like Connecticut, Michigan, and Massachusetts, rural districts received 50 percent less funding from the federal government per poor pupil than urban counties. Even in other states, urban districts received between 20 to 50 percent more funding than their rural counterparts.


The Obama Administration has made strides in leveling the playing field for rural schools. A 2011 White House Rural Council Report detailed that School Improvement Grants invested $3.5 billion in the lowest performing schools across the nation, with 18 percent of that money going to rural schools. And as part of Obama’s Race To The Top program, many rural districts are receiving large influxes of cash.

The Burden of Transportation

Compounding their funding problems, rural schools face a unique problem concerning transportation. Rural residents, despite making up only 15 percent of the population, are spread out across 72 percent of the United States. With vast distances to cover, many rural school districts are forced to allocate a greater percentage of their budget to transporting their students. While urban California spends $16.46 on instruction for every dollar spent in transportation, rural West Virginia spends only $11.71.

There are also variations in transportation costs within states. For example, a 2001 report to the Minnesota State Legislature disclosed that transportation spending per student varied between $198.66 in metro suburbs and $378.44 in rural districts with enrollments less than 500. This $179 difference per student in transportation costs can be used to fund opportunities in suburban districts that are not available to rural students.

Shortage of Teachers

The difficulty of getting to rural schools also impacts the teachers and administrators working there. Transportation might discourage teachers from working at rural schools at all. Due to the geography of rural areas, rural schools tend to be far away from many services that appeal to young people or newly formed families. William Saunders, Superintendent of Marquette Area Public Schools, worked as the superintendent of Superior Central Schools from 2005 to 2006. Both of these school districts lie in Marquette County, Michigan, which has an average of 37 people per square mile. “We had to drive 34 miles to the market or for entertainment. It was a 34-mile trip,” Saunders told the HPR when recounting his time at Superior Central. “That in itself, especially if you’re hiring young single teachers, makes it really difficult to establish roots. … And when there’s an opening in one of the nearby school districts, they might say, ‘Hey, I’d make $7,000 or $8,000 more.’ They usually jump at those opportunities.”

If getting paid a lower salary is not bad enough, rural teachers also face the possibility of having an increased workload, or teaching something that is not their expertise. Dr. John Hill, the Executive Director of the National Rural Education Association, told the HPR, “There’s just not enough people teaching these subjects and sometimes the person teaching is on an emergency license.” A science teacher in a rural school district might be asked to teach biology, chemistry, and physics. Although related, these subjects require individual preparation and thus require teachers to spend more time planning lessons. According to Hill, rural teachers, especially those who work at the high school level, often leave in their first three years.


While districts across the country increase their use of technology in the classroom, many rural districts do not have the infrastructure that would allow them to do the same. Problems with connectivity, costs, and budget constraints prevent many rural schools from having adequate Internet connection at all. A Federal Communications Commission report showed that 41 percent of rural schools lack access to the Internet. Without Internet access, rural students lose out on a vast number of electronic resources.

Saunders saw firsthand the importance of Internet access during his time at Superior Central Schools. Because of his push for technology in the classroom, Superior Central students could sign up for virtual classes in subjects like German, Spanish, and pre-calculus. “All of the classes that we didn’t offer as a district, students were able to take online at their own pace and get credit for those [classes],” recounts Saunders.

Other rural districts may soon see similar benefits, too. In 2014, the Obama Administration partnered with private firms to bring Internet access to every classroom in America through a program called the ConnectED Initiative. This public-private partnership represents an important alliance that has been missing for quite some time. Firms that support ConnectED benefit from the higher-skilled workforce that results from increased educational opportunities for all Americans.

Looking Toward the Future

Changing school funding formulas can help address the financial woes of rural schools. As of 2011, the Department of Education used four formulas to determine grants to school districts. In a report for the Center for American Progress, Jeremy Ayers argued that these formulas should be streamlined into one. This formula would take into account the number of low-income children a district serves and would allow for both large and small districts to receive fair funding.

The current state of rural education is bleak, but with a renewed scrutiny on the American education system, it is time to address all underperforming schools, regardless of their location. While the problems rural schools face are connected with larger problems of economic development, there are some things that can be done to help them. These solutions will require a concerted effort to effect substantial change and to ensure that every child, urban or rural, receives an equal opportunity to succeed.

Image Credit: Lane Pearman/Flickr