A new report from Michigan State University finds that Michigan’s education policy reforms over the past two decades have largely ignored rural schools and thereby failed to support needed community development.
The three-year-long study asked superintendents in 25 rural school districts across the state to identify the most problematic areas where current policies do not provide opportunities necessary for students to learn and thrive as adults. Key problem areas include teacher recruitment and retention, student mental health needs, broadband internet access and funding.
Because strong schools are inextricably tied to strong communities, the report places its study in the context of detailed geographical analyses of population, employment and socioeconomic characteristics of all Michigan communities. Michigan’s rural communities as a whole are losing population and getting older and poorer than nonrural Michigan. Rural communities also lag in job growth; over the past decade, total employment increased by 7.3% in Michigan’s nonrural counties but declined in rural counties. Rural residents have less access to health care, and rural life expectancy has declined sharply relative to nonrural areas.
“Children raised in Detroit and other Michigan central cities have very low chances of achieving upward mobility, and the same is true for children in many rural areas,” said lead author David Arsen, professor of education policy and K-12 educational administration.
“In this report, we explain how integrated efforts to advance educational opportunities in Michigan’s rural schools will spur needed development in the state’s rural communities, but it will require bringing fresh thinking to long-standing problems,” Arsen said.
Teacher recruitment and retention
More than 80% of the superintendents reported that teacher recruitment and retention is “very” or “extremely” difficult for their districts. Rural schools often receive few, if any, applicants for open teaching positions, despite devoting a great deal of time to recruiting. Many positions go unfilled or are covered by long-term substitute teachers. Superintendents pointed to a common set of contributing factors: low salaries, geographic isolation, declining attractiveness of the teaching profession and restrictive state certification requirements.
“For many rural superintendents, receiving a resignation or retirement letter is what keeps them up at night. Under current policies, finding a replacement is extremely challenging and often leads to unfilled positions,” said Rebecca Jacobsen, co-author of the report and professor of education policy.
Serving students with mental health needs
Two-thirds of superintendents reported that meeting student mental health needs is “very” or “extremely” difficult, and nearly all superintendents reported that these needs are a higher priority now than before the pandemic. According to the report, two factors are contributing to the growing challenge: an increase in traumatic circumstances in students’ homes and a shortage of trained mental health service providers in rural areas. Superintendents also expressed concerns about the well-being of exhausted teachers and staff who are operating under increased stress, particularly during the pandemic.
“While serving student mental health needs is a growing challenge for all school districts, the staffing shortage is especially acute in sparsely populated rural areas,” Jacobsen said. “In some cases, one can’t get on an appointment waitlist because there’s no one to wait for.”
Upwards of a third of students in many rural school districts do not have broadband internet access at home, which creates major inequities for these students relative to students with home broadband. The absence of reliable and affordable broadband also severely limits access to online physical and mental health care. And it dramatically limits community economic development in an era when telework options coupled with good broadband would otherwise allow many more people to live and work comfortably in rural Michigan.
“Michigan is blessed with extensive rural areas characterized by striking natural beauty — lakes, trees, hills — and quaint towns. All many Michigan rural communities need to spur sustained growth is good schools and good broadband access,” Arsen said.
The report finds that rural school leaders work diligently to expand connectivity for their local families, but too often their effort is insufficient to overcome a basic market failure problem: It is currently unprofitable for private internet service providers to run fiber-optic cable to low-population-density areas.
It is important to anticipate, when broadband service comes to previously unserved communities, how that service will be supported. Many rural households and businesses will need assistance with internet use and equipment breakdowns, yet frequently there are no IT services available nearby. The report describes school-based initiatives to teach digital literacy to students and other community members.
“Have an IT problem? Bring it to the local school to have it addressed by IT professionals and students in training,” Arsen said. “Local students thus trained in IT services can then establish their own businesses to also service local community needs.”
Funding is a major concern for most rural districts. In Michigan, most operational funding available to local schools is controlled by state policy. Key among these challenges are higher per-pupil costs associated with lack of scale economies, rural isolation, student transportation and declining enrollment. Unless the actual costs of educating students in rural schools are recognized in state funding, students in rural communities will not have equitable access to educational opportunities on par with their peers in nonrural schools.
School funding declined substantially over most of the past two decades, but it’s begun to trend up in recent years.
“This is terrific news for all Michigan schools, but we still have a long way to go to attain adequate and equitable funding, including much better alignment of state funding to the distinctive costs of rural districts,” Arsen said.
Schools and the local economic development
The report found that in rural communities, schools are a key driver of local economies. Apart from being the primary institutions to establish excellent educational opportunities for children, public schools play an integral role in rural community life and economic development. They are one of the largest, if not the largest, employers in most rural communities. Schools are important purchasers of services from local businesses, and they prepare youth for a range of critically important jobs in a prosperous local economy.
“The rural superintendents we met longed to provide stronger career and technical education programs for interested students and establish school-based health centers to better serve students in settings where access to non-school providers is limited,” Jacobsen said. “State policies can and should strengthen the linkages between improved educational opportunities and community development in rural Michigan,” she added.
The American dream?
The report notes that these problems are not exclusive to Michigan. In fact, over the past quarter century, the nation’s economic dynamism has increasingly concentrated on the coasts and metropolitan areas in the country’s interior. Meanwhile, employment and population growth have stagnated in rural areas.
“The American dream is premised on opportunity,” Arsen said. “Research firmly establishes that the neighborhood where a child grows up has powerful causal impacts on their chances of upward mobility and many other positive life outcomes. Opportunities for children in much of rural Michigan could be dramatically improved with state policy changes that are readily within reach.
“Children don’t need to grow up in wealthy settings to be successful. What they need are environments that provide good schools and broad basic supports. We were deeply impressed to see rural schools as settings where adults truly care about children and work hard to help them succeed. With supportive state policies, they could do even more. And in settings where this happens, rural Michigan will not only retain residents but draw new ones, because high-opportunity communities are desirable places to live and work.” Arsen said.
The report examines current state policies in each of the key issue areas above to assess how well they align with rural community circumstances, and advances detailed recommendations for needed policy changes in each area. These policy recommendations are guided by three principles: equity, efficiency and local control.
“Effective place-based state policies must establish some basic conditions,” Arsen said. ”They must address market failures (as in the case of broadband access) and offset market forces that powerfully disadvantage rural communities (as in recruitment of teachers and mental health providers). If state policies can accomplish this, then these respective service and labor markets can function more equitably and efficiently in rural areas. And it sets the stage for local discretion. We believe that a great deal of the specific elements of policy implementation should be left to local decision making and initiative. Local actors should be entrusted to figure out solutions for their communities.”
“We found rural superintendents to be impressive leaders — dedicated, competent and in touch with diverse segments of their communities,” Jacobsen said. “Their jobs naturally lead them to think in terms of their whole community, and they speak effectively about community engagement and development.”