How can we revive rural Georgia and its schools?

May 8, 2017 – Fort Gaines – Downtown Fort Gaines. Ten years ago Clay County was doing well. Unemployment was low. But today the county has the highest unemployment rate in the state and no longer even has its own high school. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

In many of the major education debates underway in Georgia and nationwide, rural areas sit on the sidelines. The innovations under review — charter schools, vouchers or tax credits for private school scholarships — seem as unlikely to spring up in their communities as a Starbuck’s or Pottery Barn.

Most rural districts are too small or remote to draw the powerhouse charter school networks, which focus on urban districts that offer higher funding, more students and a deeper teacher pool. If a rural area has a private school option — any many don’t — the school sometimes has a legacy of segregation, and is not necessarily stronger than the public school, especially for students who need special education services.

Despite educating nearly 380,000 Georgia children, rural schools draw little discussion under the Gold Dome. A new report, “Why Rural Matters,” by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rural School and Community Trust suggests that neglect comes with a price. The Trust ranks Georgia sixth among the 10 states facing the great challenges in its rural schools, based on performance, funding and demographics.

“With nearly 380,000 students, if we forget about rural Georgia, then we are forgetting about a big piece of the state,” said Alan Richard, board of trustees chair for the Rural Trust and the former Atlanta-based communications director for the Southern Regional Education Board.

Rural Georgia’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — a standardized test known as the Nation’s Report Card — is among the country’s lowest. (Except for one bright spot, 4th grade reading is near the national median). Georgia also falls short in the rate of rural high school juniors and seniors taking the SAT or ACT, 37.6 percent.

Georgia has the nation’s fifth-lowest rural graduation rate and eighth-lowest for rural students from low-income families. Only one college readiness measure (rural participation in AP classes) is above the national median.

“We need to start putting together an authentic plan of what can be done to address and solve these situations, and understand what the future holds for these schools and communities if this trend continues,” said Allen Fort, superintendent/principal in Taliaferro County K-12.

In Georgia, rural poverty appears a greater factor in poor school performance than most states. The report notes: “Only two states, Georgia and Mississippi, are in the highest quartile for percent of students eligible for subsidized meals and also in the quartile with the lowest rural poverty graduation rates.”

“Poverty in Georgia affects smaller districts in several ways — one is the smaller tax base that funds local systems, another is the increased costs associated with instructional supports needed for students that come from poverty-stricken families,” said former Pelham City, Ga., superintendent Jim Arnold. “More instructional support means a greater need for individual and small group instruction. Placing these students in classes of 30-35 students without additional resources guarantees academic failure. Higher costs in other areas means the continuation of the trend of cutting PE, art and music classes that make a unique difference in the lives of students that don’t get much, if any, of that at home. While money alone does not solve all these issues, the lack of it perpetuates the effects of poverty on smaller systems and schools and ensures lower graduation rates, higher dropout rates and the continuation of the cycle of poverty for at least the next several generations.”

“State funding continues to lag behind inflation and the austerity cuts, while reduced, continue. Since 2003 the state has underfunded public schools by over $9.2 billion. These cuts are magnified in smaller rural districts.  A new funding formula is needed with the focus of its construction not on saving money but on providing a quality education for all Georgia students regardless of where they live,” said Arnold.

Rural districts are teetering under the pressure of increased health care costs and the state’s transferring of more transportation expenses to them. “State funding for transportation has steadily decreased for years and the costs have shifted to local systems. Drivers, buses, maintenance and fuel costs have increasingly become dependent on non-existent local fund,” said Arnold.

The General Assembly is again trying to revitalize rural Georgia, but the obstacles, outlined last month at the first session of a new House Rural Development Council, are daunting. Among those highlighted:

•There are 11 counties in Georgia that had higher populations in 1860 than they had in 2010.

•Because of the exodus of residents to other areas, rural counties lose $71 million in income every year.

•Rural counties had just 22 percent of the state’s jobs in 2014, while the Atlanta region and the state’s 13 “hub cities” saw 90 percent of all job growth from 2007 to 2014. (Here is a link to a sobering report about jobs in Georgia, including the fact that 8 of Georgia’s 10 largest occupations are low-wage jobs that pay workers too little to support a family of three. )

The state has to address inequities between well-resourced suburban schools and their rural counterparts. Technology has to be harnessed to deepen instruction and curriculum and internet connectivity extended to the 25 percent of rural Georgia households without it. Districts must expand grow-your-own programs that identify and encourage local teacher candidates as early as high school but also better market the advantages of rural life to potential hires.

Taliaferro superintendent Fort says graduates of rural schools who go onto college “may never return, or those who just want a job leave, because there are few jobs to have and little housing in these counties. We must address these several rural school issues to ensure that these students are getting the same type of quality education through teachers and facilities, develop an intrinsic motivation to succeed, and have a future that provides opportunity and choice of jobs and places to live.”

Reader Comments 0

55 comments
NWGAMathScience
NWGAMathScience

This article vastly over-focuses on the funding problem. First, let's make better use of the funding that DOES come to these schools - and I do mean the elephant in the room: high school sports. Many of the schools I taught at in rural NW Ga are football teams with a "school" attached to provide government funding.


Two other serious barriers prevent improvement. The first is the Good-Ole-Boy network. The nepotism and cronyism in these schools is extreme. A particular school I worked at (Trion City) - the high school has fewer than 20 teachers and close to ten of those are close family members of two particular families (one of which is the superintendent's).


The more insidious and intractable problem is anti-intellectualism. This are is still rife with it. I guess I just don't get it. If I am trying to teach little Johnny and little Susie how to Math or approach a problem scientifically, why do folks treat it as if I am leading them thru some Satanic ritual?


This system is too broken to fix. I have been away from teaching for two full years now. That distance has not made it look any better. Tear it down completely and rebuild.


Eric Crisp

CaveShvig "at" AOL.com

Tom Green
Tom Green

By funneling money out of public schools, I only see a degradation of services for these schools. The worst is yet to come.

BuddyGreen
BuddyGreen

It would be easier and probably cheaper to help those living in poverty find a way to move from their rural areas with little hope for employment to another location with more opportunity. For the cost of the tax breaks given to industries as incentives you could move a lot of people.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

What these rural communities need is jobs.  Unfortunately, they have been hit with a one, two, three punch of labor intensive industries (mostly textile) moving overseas, agriculture segments being decimated, and the few unskilled jobs that remain are being filled by illegals.

Bad political policy is one of the root causes of each of these and no, neither the Dims or Repugs have a clue on how to fix it, although Donald Trump is on the right track.


Create a business friendly atmosphere in which industry and agriculture can flourish and most of the other problems take care of themselves. 

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

Some comments on this blog disappeared today, Saturday. If you don't see your comment, please repost it. Thanks, Maureen

HokeSmyth
HokeSmyth

This is a self-correcting problem.  Give it some time.  If people leave the rural county, and college grads never come back, there'll be less need for hospitals, schools, etc.  Less tax income means less govt., less govt. employees, and lesser real estate prices. As the cycle continues, new people are attracted to bargain real estate, and these newbys lead the gentryfication movement.


Unfortunately, many local politicians see a speed trap on the interstate as their best source of income.

Astropig
Astropig

@HokeSmyth 

I think that you are advocating letting the natural order of things play out,free from government intervention to "help".It would be nice of that actually happened.

Agree about the speed traps.Especially in the summer vacation months on routes to Florida.

Cordelia Ann Sheppard Riley
Cordelia Ann Sheppard Riley

Mindset needs to change. Growth Mindset needs to be more,than a slogan. It needs to be a plan of action that treats all kids the same by providing programs of study and actions plans that reach all learns despite their learning differences. Parents need to stop been seen as beneficial as long as they hush up and provude money or scab labor when tje school needs it for events. Parents need to be taught to he involved from the start like they are taught and kept involved in the Harlem School Zone.

Ceretta Sheppard
Ceretta Sheppard

By replacing all the old stuck in the 50's & 60's thinking people who are running things and stopping progress!

mgiles06
mgiles06

When you drive around rural Georgia, you find dying small communities.  They share one thing in common - the local elementary school is gone.  Schools consolidated over the years and rural kids are bused to the population center of the county.

Without a local school for their kids, parents leave - and folks don't move in to replace them.  It's a vicious downward spiral.  That holds true for small and not-so-small places.

Georgia must focus on equitable education funding that recognizes the obvious - schools with higher poverty rates require more resources to have a chance at breaking the cycle of poverty.

Lets face it, the state has two choices, invest in education or invest in prisons. Guaranteed, education will provide a better return on the investment.


MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Starik @MaryElizabethSings


The best teacher I ever had from a South Georgia high school to Wesleyan College in Macon, to New York University, in NYC, was my high school English teacher, from south Georgia.  You are stuck inside your own head, Starik. Come outside and see the light.


Poverty creates illiteracy.  The economics of south Georgia need to improve and that will not happen until today's Democrats control leadership in this state. 

Starik
Starik

@MaryElizabethSings @Starik Not necessarily. Ignorance begets ignorance. You encountered good teachers from the rural south.  They left the rural south.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Starik @MaryElizabethSings


My high school English teacher became a college English teacher in south Georgia.  She never left south Georgia.  She died there.  Quality can be found anywhere, anytime.


How can we revive rural Georgia and its schools?  Elect Democrats who care about the common good and who will rebuild this state, economically and educationally.



bu22
bu22

@MaryElizabethSings @Starik The very worst schools in this state are in areas run by Democrats.  Schools should not be a partisan issue.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@RufusATL @bu22 @MaryElizabethSings @Starik Not sure where that observation comes from but the lowest performing schools in Georgia align with poverty, not politics. Most of rural Georgia votes Republican. Most of urban Georgia votes Democrat. Both are home to the state's struggling schools. What those schools have in common are students from low-income households.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@MaureenDowney @RufusATL @bu22 @MaryElizabethSings @Starik


That is very true, Maureen.  It is simply my belief that today's Democrats, not the former Dixiecrat Democrats who became today's Republicans if they are old enough, care more about building the economy for ALL of  the people of Georgia, regardless of their wealth, than do today's Republicans, who appear, from my perspective, to primarily be concerned with accruing more money/wealth for themselves, alone.

bu22
bu22

@MaureenDowney @RufusATL @bu22 @MaryElizabethSings @Starik MES keeps saying Democrats make a difference.  I counted 151 schools on the latest list.  APS, DeKalb, Richmond, Fulton, Clayton, Bibb, Chatham, Dougherty and Clarke-all heavily Democratic districts-make up 112 of the 151.  Many of the remaining 39 are probably from Democratic counties as well.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

BU22,


Most of those districts you named, bu22, are black districts.  Have you taken into account that slavery for 250 years, and Jim Crow for another 100 years, in which Jim Crow segregation left black citizens basically illiterate, has left the South only since the 1970s?


I doubt it.  Your reasoning is usually missing the aspect of historical truth, imho.

L_D
L_D

@mgiles06 How small should schools be permitted to be?  We already have counties with under 600 students in K-12 - that's under 50 students/grade (if equally distributed).  Should we consider going back to a one-room school house for K-5? K-8?  How does a county which earns only 5 high school teachers (based on number of students) provide a comprehensive high school curriculum with a wide range of course offerings?  The state already has sparsity grants for small systems, but should there be a minimum number of teachers per school - regardless of number of students?


Note, I am not disagreeing with you, just wondering how we create "equitable" when there is such disparity in the size of systems (Gwinnett has 10% of the state's public school students and then you have systems with under 600 students).

alt.AJC
alt.AJC

For rural Georgia a brighter future lies in expanding choice rather than continuing to limit education to a single school building and curriculum. 

Where numbers and distance present obstacles to charter school formation and innovation, perhaps homeschooling is the better option. The right combination of tax incentives and relaxed policy might inspire more parents to create learning environments which better meet the needs of their children and community. 

Local zip code schools can remain a fallback option.

Starik
Starik

@alt.AJC How do poorly educated parents effectively homeschool? How do poorly educated teachers effectively teach?? How many schools prioritize football over education?

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Starik @alt.AJC

The Economic Research Service classifies counties as low employment counties if “25 percent or more of residents 25-64 years old had neither a high school diploma nor GED.” In Georgia, 84 counties are classified as low education counties. There is no credible research on whether under-educated parents can effectively homeschool. Most data on student performance among homeschoolers is self-reported. Only a handful of states collect data that can allows any comparative analysis. Here is a piece about Alaska. 


https://www.responsiblehomeschooling.org/the-alaska-data/



bu22
bu22

@MaureenDowney @Starik @alt.AJC There may not be research, but its pretty obvious.  Would you hire a poorly educated teacher in a school?  Who helps the student when they are stumped in an on-line program?  Homeschooling is not something everyone can do well.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

That is going to be hard to accomplish under Republican leadership. Vote for Democratic minority leader in Georgia's Legislature, Stacey Abrams, for Governor of Georgia in the upcoming election. That is the only way that the disenfranchised in Georgia of all races and all locales will be helped economically, socially, and educationally.

Even by reading posts from Republicans

on this blog, readers can see that the Republican mindset usually will watch out for its own self-interests not the common good.

alt.AJC
alt.AJC

@MaryElizabethSings 

Where has the Democrat Party of FDR and JFK gone? In place of constructive ideas they seem ever more captive to bitterness, hatred and rage at voters.

Rather than learning from election results they choose to resent them.

With education policies held hostage.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

And, disillusioned Republicans in Georgia, please come back home to the Democratic Party where you belong. We will welcome you back with open arms!

Starik
Starik

@MaryElizabethSings The Georgia Democratic Party needs to broaden its base to win. Pay attention to working class whites and their needs.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Whom do you think my appeal was targeted for, Starik? I, myself, am a working class white, female Georgia Democrat who never abandoned the Democratic Party in Georgia.

Starik
Starik

@MaryElizabethSings Most have. Let them become enlightened. The Democrats will have to cater to their needs, though.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Starik @MaryElizabethSings


The Democratic Party of today in Georgia is an inclusive party, and the original Democratic Party spearheaded by Thomas Jefferson and then by Andrew Jackson was the party of the common man, not the party of the highly wealthy. 

bu22
bu22

@alt.AJC @MaryElizabethSings Yes, the education policies of the Democratic Party are held hostage by special interest groups.  They focus on the employees of schools districts, not on the students.  Students don't vote and don't have lobbying groups.

bu22
bu22

@MaryElizabethSings Democratic policies generally focus on the administrators and teachers, not the students.  That is especially true in districts like DeKalb.  Its understandable.  Students don't vote.  Administrators and teachers do. 

Astropig
Astropig

@MaryElizabethSings 

" Republicans in Georgia, please come back home to the Democratic Party where you belong. We will welcome you back with open arms!"

Help us win elections and we'll stop calling you racists and misogynists! We'll even flippety flop on history (again) and claim Herman Talmadge and other white supremacists that we disavow now because they embarrass us!  We'll become members of the KKK again if it will help us win power! 


Come back!

Astropig
Astropig

@MaryElizabethSings @Starik 

" Thomas Jefferson and then by Andrew Jackson was the party of the common man, not the party of the highly wealthy. "


Ask any native American about Old Hickory.You'll have to make a trip to Oklahoma,because that's where he exiled them to in the "Trail Of Tears".It was a Democrat genocide,but that's okay-it was a Democrat genocide.


Jefferson,meanwhile,loved his slaves.A lot.Like Bill Clinton loved some of his constituents.A lot.

PoliticParallelUniverse
PoliticParallelUniverse

Until we can abandon county lines built for horses and buggies, we'll never adequately address education of rural Georgians. A rural child has to excel beyond all expectations to make it to college, while an urban child has to fail not to make it. Wiping out county boards of educations has to be the first step toward progress.

bu22
bu22

@MaryElizabethSings @Starik @PoliticParallelUniverse Frozen in the past leaves you just frozen in the past.  A true education means you know that things have to change.  If that means tearing down things that don't work or are no longer efficient like an underpopulated school, so be it.