Janresseger: Lacking Experience, What Will Trump and DeVos Do to Rural and Small Town Public Schools?

I am fascinated by an article that appeared the Washington Post over the weekend: Where School Choice Isn’t an Option, Rural Public Schools Worry They’ll be Left Behind.  The reporters take us to East Millinocket, Maine, where: “The small parking lot outside of Schenck High School was crammed with cars, all there for the basketball game, the town’s featured event that night…  This small, remote high school is perhaps East Millinocket’s last and most crucial community pillar. Even before the local paper mill shut down three years ago, the town had suffered a stark economic decline because of the mill’s dwindling profits and the widespread poverty that followed. With a shrinking tax base and an aging population, Schenck High faces an uncertain future. Washington has long designed education policy to deal with urban and suburban challenges, often overlooking the unique problems that face rural schools like this one.”

The reporters include a map of the 50 states that identifies six states where over 55 percent of the students attend rural schools: Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Maine. The article explores this question: How will the Trump administration—which has promised its priority will be to enhance competition and school choice by expanding vouchers students can carry to private and parochial schools and by expanding privately operated (but publicly funded) charter schools—do that in a town like East Millinocket, Maine?  That is, of course, the question that Maine Senator Susan Collins and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski kept asking during the Senate’s debate on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as our U.S. Secretary of Education, and they both voted against the confirmation because they were not satisfied with the answers they received. Jose DelReal and Emma Brown, the Washington Post‘s reporters, add that almost 9 million of the 50 million public school students across the United States attend rural schools.

I am especially interested in this article because, while today I live in inner-suburban Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up in a small town in northern Montana, one of the largely rural states identified by DelReal and Brown. My town of 10,000 people isn’t classified as rural, but within a hundred miles in all directions were the tiny communities where fewer than ten or fifteen students made up the high school graduating class every year. Even in my small (not rural) town, the schools were a central institution. High school basketball games were packed on frigid Friday evenings, and the high school football team played on a field surrounded by small hills and a sort of terraced roadway on which fans from the community (not just parents) would park to watch the games in their heated cars. After all, the temperature was sometimes below zero even in football season. While today, my husband and I buy tickets to hear the Cleveland Orchestra and attend plays at the Cleveland Playhouse or Great Lakes Theater, in my hometown, everybody bought tickets to see the plays produced by the high school, and students and the community alike came to the high school, the town’s only auditorium, to listen when Community Concerts brought a musical event to town. One time when I went for my regular checkup, my doctor congratulated me for making the high school honor roll, which at that time was regularly published in the newspaper.

Schools in small towns and rural communities may have trouble offering salaries that will attract teachers to remote areas. DelReal and Brown explain: “Rural schools have trouble recruiting and retaining good teachers and principals because housing is so limited, pay is so low and working conditions are difficult… Trump has decried failing public schools that are ‘flush with cash,’ but many rural schools—hobbled by a poor local tax base and weak state support—struggle with tight and often shrinking budgets.”  Neither can rural schools offer the kind of broad curriculum provided in the huge suburban high schools. There are real advantages, however. The students are known and cared for by the teachers who also live in their neighborhoods, and even people in town track students’ accomplishments. The superintendent of schools in East Millinocket, Maine adds another reality in his interview with the Post‘s reporters: “If you shut down schools, you destroy a town… There wouldn’t be any viable base for anyone or anything here.”

So… what might a federal administration committed to expanding a school choice marketplace through competition do for a place like East Millinocket, Maine?  It’s not hard to imagine.

The online academies are the first thing that come to mind. These are the schools children and adolescents can attend in the privacy of their own homes on the computer. The U.S. Department of Education might dangle incentive grants for states to create competition in rural school districts by bringing in e-schools—perhaps even encourage states to save money by making online education the only thing available in areas too remote for the schools to be consolidated together or with a larger district. The federal grants would come with baubles—tablets and computers provided to students and enhanced broadband that would benefit not only the schools but also be available to residents in the region. Consider the marketing and branding potential of such a project.

There are a couple of serious problems, however.  The virtual e-schools we have today have proven themselves abysmal compared to other kinds of education. The students are not learning nearly as much, for example. Just a year ago, after several years of support for an experiment with e-school charters, the Walton Foundation’s education program officer announced that based on a major, three-part, Walton Foundation-sponsored investigation by Mathematica Policy Research, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), the Walton Foundation would be seriously reconsidering making grants for online charter schools: “The results are, in a word, sobering. The CREDO study found that over the course of a school year, the students in virtual charters learned the equivalent of 180 fewer days in math and 72 fewer days in reading then their peers in traditional charter schools, on average. This is stark evidence that most online charters have a negative impact on students’ academic achievement. The results are particularly significant because of the reach and scope of online charters: They currently enroll some 200,000 children in 200 schools operating across 26 states.  If virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth-largest in the country and among the worst-performing. ”

Another problem with online charters has been epitomized by Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a huge Ohio virtual school operated by two for-profit, privately held companies owned by William Lager, a powerful Republican political contributor. There is evidence at ECOT of a serious online truancy problem. The Ohio Department of Education has documented that ECOT, which collected $100 million from the state in 2015 alone to educate about 15,000 students, needs to repay $60 million, because a lot of those students were not logging on for the state-required five hours per day—or even 20 hours per week. ECOT has argued that it is merely required by an old, 2003 agreement with the state to provide 920 hours of curriculum per year but not required to prove that students are actively engaged with that curriculum for 920 hours. Because the state legislature and the governor’s office and the elected state supreme court are all dominated by the Republican Party, and because ECOT’s operator William Lager has been investing regularly and heavily in campaign contributions to Ohio Republicans, it seems that online education in Ohio cannot be regulated effectively. The $100 million dollars, including last year’s $60 million non-recoverable overpayment for ECOT’s phantom students, is coming right out of the state’s education budget and hence reducing funding for the state’s public schools.

We can only hope that President Trump and Betsy DeVos, neither of whom has a bit of experience with public schools as a student or parent or teacher, will spend some time in these public institutions and pay some attention to their mission and their contributions to their students and to the vast array of communities they serve. The UCLA education professor and writer Mike Rose has made visiting public schools all across the United States and writing about these visits a centerpiece of his professional career.  In his little book, Why School?, Rose explains that public schools everywhere are embedded in the communities they serve—something impossible for e-schools: “Schools are nested in place—for all their regularity, they reflect local history, language, and cultural practices.” (Why School?, 2014 Edition, p. 216)

Rose’s perspective on the broader policy debates about education comes from reflecting on the time he has spent in public school classrooms:

“So much depends on what you look for and how you look at it. In the midst of the reform debates and culture wars that swirl around schools; the fractious, intractable school politics; the conservative assault on public institutions; and the testing, testing, testing—in the midst of all this, it is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose of the common public school…

“The details of classroom life convey, in a specific and physical way, the intellectual work being done day to day across the nation—the feel and clatter of teaching and learning… Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions… Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here. Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us… There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope. Such is not the case now. An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life…. The free-market believers’ infatuation slides quickly to blithe arrogance abut all things public…

“We have to do better than this. We have to develop a revitalized sense of public life and public education. One tangible resource for such a revitalization comes for me out of the thousands of small, daily events of classroom life I have witnessed. This sense of the possible emerges when a child learns to take another child seriously, learns to think something through with other children, learns about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It comes when, over time, a child arrives at an understanding of numbers, or acquires skill in rendering an idea in written language…

“There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities… The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good…. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but it loses its civic heart.” (Why School?, 2014 Edition, pp. 201-206)

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...