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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rural Areas Perceive Policy Tilt

Urban Bias Seen on Stimulus, But Ed. Dept. Vows Balance

By Michele McNeil

Hamlet, N.C.

When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks about using merit pay to attract the best teachers to the classroom, he probably doesn’t have in mind a place like Richmond County, N.C.

In this rural community where the unemployment rate is nearly 14 percent and there’s no movie theater for miles around, school administrators say money isn’t the recruitment tool it is in the big city.

And when Mr. Duncan talks about states’ needing to embrace charter schools to give parents more educational options, he may not be envisioning places like South Dakota or Montana, where half the school districts have just a few hundred students—and little demand for public school alternatives.

Rural school advocates say the federal priorities emerging under Mr. Duncan—a former chief executive officer of the 408,000-student Chicago public school system—favor education improvement ideas that are best suited to urban settings.

Initiatives such as the Race to the Top Fund competition fail to recognize the distinctive problems facing rural districts, which serve some 13 million students, or about one-quarter of the nation’s public school enrollment, according to the Rural School and Community Trust, based in Arlington, Va.

“Both Duncan and [President Barack] Obama are so narrowly focused on inner-city solutions for education challenges,” said South Dakota state Sen. Sandy Jerstad, a Democrat from Sioux Falls and a member of her legislative chamber’s education committee.

The Obama administration’s push for charter schools is particularly bothersome to Sen. Jerstad and some other advocates for rural education. In South Dakota, more than half the school districts have fewer than 300 students, so rural champions question whether a new school would draw the kind of numbers needed to justify opening it. (In another such state, Montana, half the districts have fewer than 100 students.)

“Charter schools just don’t work for us,” Ms. Jerstad said, “and I hate to see the whole issue of charter schools be a criterion for federal funding.”

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