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Center Ideas: New Report Describes Why Rural Education Matters in Our Region

The Region 5 Comprehensive Center offers the first of two blog posts on rural education nationally and on its region.

The Region 5 Comprehensive Center recently recorded a webinar with the National Rural Education Association (NREA) on research into the profound impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural schools and students in our region. The NREA’s Why Rural Matters 2023 report highlights rural education’s challenges and unique strengths in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.


All four states are within the Appalachian region and home to many rural schools and students. West Virginia is one of 13 states where at least half of its public schools are in rural areas. Tennessee and Virginia are two of 10 states where roughly half of all public-school students live in rural areas. More than 40 percent of schools and nearly a third of students in Kentucky are in rural areas. 


Why Rural Matters 2023 researchers explored the needs and inequities affecting 9.5 million students attending public schools in rural areas—more than one in five nationally. The question examined critically was how each state distributed educational support and resources for rural student well-being.


The report showed many rural communities faced multiple crises in educational loss, economic outcomes, unemployment, and mental health following the pandemic, and the issues impacting rural communities and families also affect rural children, including all aspects of public education and psychological and physical well-being.


Research has shown that poverty increases with distance from urban and suburban areas where states concentrate resources, and distance can be a barrier to learning opportunities. For example, some rural communities lacked broadband internet connectivity long before the pandemic, leaving children disconnected from educational advantages that families in urban and suburban areas can more easily access. 


However, Why Rural Matters 2023 reports that rural education in our region has many strengths. The report highlights Kentucky’s relative success at equitably identifying girls for gifted education. This was not the case in some states, where rural girls make up as few as 40% of the students in gifted education. Another bright spot was Kentucky’s success in graduating rural students from high school compared to non-rural students. 


Still, the researchers identified challenges. Kentucky ranked sixth overall in “rural priority” and was identified as “crucial and urgent” on two of five gauges. The state has nearly double the U.S. average number of rural students, but these students receive just 35% of the state’s education funding. Community poverty levels were described as “dire,” and more than one in five rural students live in homes where the household income is below the federal poverty line of $30,000 for a family of four.



Rural areas were home to more than one-third of Tennessee public schools. The state’s 283,188 rural students comprised just under 29% of the total public-school enrollment. Rural schools and districts were large, and rural students were more likely to live well below the federal poverty threshold than rural students nationally. Tennessee’s instructional spending was nearly $1,500 per rural pupil, which was lower than the national average. The researchers reported teacher salaries as being lower than in all but 15 other states.


Educational outcomes mainly were near or above national averages, and high school graduation rates were better than the non-rural U.S. average (rank 39th). Access to support for learning and development was a crucial concern, with Tennessee ranking in the top 15 on three indicators, including the fifth lowest rate of female students receiving gifted services, 15.7% of households with no broadband access, and a ranking of 14th on a ratio of students to psychologist/school counselor.



Virginia’s rural school districts enrolled more than 227,000 students, representing nearly one in six public school students in the state. The rural student population was among the most diverse in the nation. Rural students attended large schools and districts with high transportation costs that detract from instructional spending. 


Educational outcomes for rural Virginia students were the fifth lowest in the country. Access to supports for learning and development was mixed, with low rates of uninsured rural children, high rates of rural families with no broadband internet access, and low rates of rural participation in public preschool.


West Virginia

Half of West Virginia’s public schools and nearly one in four students were rural, with high numbers of children experiencing poverty, high rates of identification of special education, and limited racial/ethnic diversity. West Virginia’s history of consolidation has resulted in large schools, large districts, and burdensome transportation costs for rural districts. Rural teacher salaries were nearly $4,500 below the national average, even after adjusting for comparable wages in rural areas nationally. 


West Virginia’s rural students performed below the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress math and reading exams and West Virginia rural high schools had lower graduation rates than the state’s non-rural high schools. Access to learning and development supports was mixed, with two indicators (rural broadband access and rural female representation receiving gifted services) in the most urgent quartile and public preschool in the next quartile.

The report showed diversity increasing in rural schools nationally. In 2013–14, rural school districts enrolled 251,000 students who were English learners and multilingual learners (EL/ML) (3.5% of all students in rural school districts); in 2016–17, that enrollment increased to 283,000 (3.8%); and in 2021–22, enrollment increased again to 330,000 (4.5%). 


  • Virginia educated the most EL/ML students in our region with 7,186 students (3.2% of all students in its rural school districts)
  • Kentucky served nearly 5,000 EL/ML students (2.5%)
  • Tennessee’s rural school districts enrolled 4,177 EL/ML students (1.5%)
  • West Virginia’s rural schools served 605 EL/ML students (0.6%). 


As post-pandemic recovery continues, states and local districts can use the research to evaluate what more they can accomplish to provide public education that meets student and family needs and prepares young people for life after high school graduation including college and career readiness and engaged citizenship. 


For more information, capacity-building services and support for rural education, contact the Region 5 Comprehensive Center.