Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Presidential hopefuls play hooky on rural schools

The presidential candidates' stands on rural education issues remain largely a mystery, writes Caitlin Howley for the Daily Yonder, a rural news site: "Neither offers much that is substantive on rural education."

John McCain supports performance pay, in which teachers are financially rewarded when student achievement increases. He also encourages private tutoring, school vouchers, and "school choice" options. Obama supports increased educational funding and promises to further develop early childhood education plans and reform the No Child Left Behind law.

Both have discussed incentives for those who choose to teach in struggling schools or rural areas, but Howley says their education platforms lack addressing the unique issues rural communities face -- though there are more than 10 million rural students. "Poverty remains a persistent impediment to equitable education opportunities and student achievement," she writes.

Issues directly affecting the status of rural education include the skweing of Title I grants for "large, urban school districts at the expense of rural districts" and the increasing number of non-English speaking immigrants and decreasing number of English Language Learner teachers. The National Center for Education Statistics found that "more than 40 percent of rural districts report vacancies and/or difficulty recruiting ELL teachers." None of these issues has been addressed by Obama or McCain.

The rural education system faces many challenges in its curriculum and teacher recruitment. Lower pay, geographic and social isolation and being required to teach multiple subjects discourage teachers from going rural. Many of the issues facing large districts, such as non-English speaking students, professional development and a lack of foreign-language teachers, also face rural areas, but without the numbers to qualify for federal aid. Considering that 30 percent of all schools nationwide are rural, it is vital that these problems be publicly addressed by our presidential candidates, says Howley, director of the Rural Education Center at Edvantia: "The educational lives of children should not be shortchanged simply because of where they live." Read the whole story here.

Michelle Phillips of the Anamosa Journal-Eureka in Iowa questioned Obama about education when he was seeking votes in that state's caucuses last fall. He called for better teacher pay, broadband access, and more money for school buildings and early-childhood education. To read Phillips' story, click here.

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