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Federal Education Policy in Rural America

Lars D. Johnson
Ashley LiBetti Mitchel
Andrew J. Rotherham

Many administrators and educators in rural America believe federal education policy is not designed for rural districts, and that consideration of policy’s unique impact on rural districts is not a priority. They’re not alone in that belief; survey data show that elite national education policy “Insiders” largely agree. Yet rural school districts comprise about half of all American school districts and educate a quarter of American students. These communities and their students cannot be an afterthought.

It’s critical that federal policy complement and support the efforts of rural educators. Rural districts face unique challenges, such as maintaining a rich set of course offerings, attracting and retaining teachers, and managing administrative overhead due to their small size and remote geographies. Federal policy can catalyze much needed reform and innovation in rural K–12, some of which will yield lessons that could be extended to districts nationwide.

As in most communities, public district schools educate the majority of rural students. In this paper we focus on federal policies affecting those schools. We first provide context by describing the relevant demographics of rural America. We then take inventory of current federal policies affecting rural districts and describe the landscape of organizations involved in rural education policy. We provide the results of a paired survey given to both superintendents in rural districts and national education policy Insiders, and discuss general results and areas of convergence and divergence. Lastly, we draw conclusions about the unique characteristics of and opportunities for education in rural America and offer a set of recommendations for federal policy action.