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Center Ideas: New Research Equips States to Address Rural Education Needs in Region 5

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


Why Rural Matters

The Why Rural Matters 2023 report described rural education’s conditions nationwide and state by state, critically examining the resources and inequities impacting 9.5 million students attending public schools in rural areas, including more than 800,000 rural students in Region 5 (KY, TN, VA, WV). In our region, the percentage of rural students in each state is higher than the national average, and the authors categorized levels of concern in these states as “urgent, critical, and serious.” 


Many rural communities are facing multiple crises in educational loss, economic outcomes, unemployment, and mental health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Any issue impacting rural families and communities also affects rural children, including all aspects of education, mental health, and physical well-being.


While the findings haven’t gone unnoticed, rural schools and students often seem invisible and overlooked by many policymakers who lack personal experience in rural schools and have not yet developed a complete understanding of the spatial inequities faced in rural communities. 


The National Rural Education Association, which released the report late last year, described spatial and educational equity in two ways in its National Rural Education Research Agenda: 1) spatial inequity, or how equity challenges related to place, and 2) how equity—or rather, inequity—relates to diverse identities and social circumstances present within the rural school and community.


The Why Rural Matters report is designed to start conversations and agenda-setting around major challenges and initiatives in each state. Rural areas were hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and educators, school leaders, researchers, and policymakers can use the data and information in the report to respond proactively even as factors continue to change.


After years of measuring racial diversity through the inadequate lens of “White” and “non-White,” the researchers used the rural diversity index, begun in the 2019 Why Rural Matters report. The index showed that when two students are randomly selected from a school in a rural district, there is about a one-in-three chance the students will identify as being from different racial/ethnic backgrounds. The most recent national statistics describing that likelihood is 33.4% in 2023, up from 31.9% in the 2019 report, underscoring the steadily diversifying landscape of rural America.


In the most recent report, researchers ranked states from highest priority to lowest priority, while emphasizing that state rankings suggest rural education in low-priority states still deserve increased attention from policymakers. The highest-priority states in the report were those where key factors converge to present the most extreme challenges for rural education, suggesting the most urgent and comprehensive needs for policymakers’ attention. 


Challenges in Region 5

Challenges were reported as widespread in the Region 5 states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. They ranked in the top half of states in terms of overall priority for attention, exhibiting the most extreme challenges for rural schools and students: West Virginia (4th most extreme challenges), Kentucky (6th), Virginia (19th), and Tennessee (21st). 


West Virginia and Virginia rank among the 11 states with the highest rankings on the rural education policy gauge, indicating that they are among the states that most urgently need state policy changes to address the needs of rural schools and students. The education policy gauge includes five indicators that measure and describe conditions that (1) existing research shows are directly related to student achievement and well-being, and (2) are the direct result of policy decisions (and thus could be effectively addressed via policy changes). 


Examples of harmful conditions driven by policy decisions include low levels of rural instructional spending, low rural teacher salaries, and very large rural schools and districts (the result of widespread consolidation in these states, large rural schools and districts contribute to inequity in learning outcomes and contribute to funding issues by shifting dollars away from instruction to inordinate transportation costs).


Access to learning and development supports among rural students in these states is also a point of concern that indicates the harm done by past policies and suggests opportunities for policymakers to take steps to address the specific needs of schools serving rural communities. Tennessee (categorized as urgent), West Virginia (critical), Kentucky (critical), and Virginia (serious) were all highlighted as states where policy action is needed to address rural students’ lack of access to relevant supports. 


States with the highest rates of rural households lacking broadband internet access were almost exclusively located in the Southeast and contiguous Central Appalachia regions. West Virginia (17.5%), Kentucky (16.1%), Tennessee (15.7%), and Virginia (15.0%) are among the states with higher rates of rural households without broadband access, which indicates less access to communication and enrichment opportunities for students and families and, in the case of remote schooling, a lack of access to basic school operations.


The Why Rural Matters 2023 report can be used to determine how crucial it is for policymakers to address the policy context of their state as it relates to the specific needs of schools serving rural communities. For more information, capacity-building services, and support for rural education, contact the Region 5 Comprehensive Center.


John White is a subject matter expert on communications for the Region 5 Comprehensive Center. 

Dr. Jerry Johnson is the Phoebe Moore Dail Distinguished Professor in Rural Education at East Carolina University, a researcher, and co-author of the Why Rural Matters report.