Why are Georgia’s rural students overlooked?

Georgia is home to the third-largest rural student enrollment in the United States, at almost 380,000.

Georgia has the nation’s third largest rural school population, yet few of the education proposals coming out of Atlanta benefit those nearly 380,000 students. Rural children represent 22 percent of Georgia’s 1,756,553 public school students.

Why are their needs overlooked?

Because the easy answers favored by legislators — charter schools, tax credits, vouchers — don’t address the complex interplay of problems that thwart rural schools and students. Among the challenges: disappearing jobs, diminishing health care and flagging infrastructure.

At a media forum Friday sponsored by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a comment was made that the biggest game changer for rural communities would be parents with good-paying jobs. That would enable the parents to be home for dinner to ask their kids about their day and get involved more in their children’s school lives. While education is critical to building a solid middle class, the state also needs policies that support strong families.

Another major challenge: Finding qualified teachers, as detailed by a rural superintendent in a note to me this week. He wrote:

Our entire state is in the midst of a teacher shortage, quickly approaching a crisis stage.  The future of our state is directly dependent on those who work in these classrooms and administrative offices because they give our children the appropriate education needed to successfully function in what is now a very competitive global society.

We want to mandate, measure and compare assessment, and have as the holy grail of education the ultimate achievement of high graduation rates (which is fine), yet in the end do very little to ensure the continuous supply of enough college graduates to fill the classrooms with quality educators in a growing prosperous state.…Just look at the decrease in the number of teachers who graduated 20/10/5 years ago, how many left the profession after three to five years, then add the growth of our state, especially in school-age children. Those hard facts will tell you how critical this shortage is.

I cannot even describe the difficulty to get teachers to rural systems. Only one certified teacher lives in my county. The nearest doctor, grocery store or hospital is 20 miles away. There are no neighborhoods/subdivisions of homes, no trailer parks, and only one set of apartments — there are no places to live to attract people.

At the media forum, the Georgia Partnership unveiled its annual top 10 education issues to watch. Rural schools made the 2018 list. Here are some of the troubling trends that GPEE found impedes rural Georgia and its schools. You can read the full GPEE report here.

Lack of healthcare: Georgia has seen four rural hospitals close since 2010. This is partially due to the population migration from rural to suburban and urban communities. However, lack of access to medical insurance is also a factor. Rural Georgians are less likely to have health insurance, a factor that both inhibits people from going to the doctor outside of emergency situations, and cuts into payments hospitals receive for the care they provide…Georgia’s uninsured population tied for third-highest in the nation at 13.1% or 1,388,000 people, located overwhelmingly in rural parts of the state. About one in four children in Georgia is living in a home with an income at or below the federal poverty level, and more than 60% of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—more than 1 million children in Georgia are part of one or both of those groups. For these students, access is the number one challenge in addressing their health care needs: Access to insurance, access to nutritious food, and access to physical and mental health care are all more difficult for economically disadvantaged students.

Changing demographics: Some populations, such as those living in poverty, English language learners (ELLs), and students with disabilities, cost more to educate. Many of these populations are growing across the state, especially in rural areas. As a percentage, Georgia’s rural students represent among the highest in the nation for poverty and for minority students. Not only are rural communities the poorest, rural poverty is growing the fastest. According to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, the population of students with disabilities between 2003–2004 and 2012–2013 only grew in rural communities.

Inadequate funding: While rural districts have been seeing an increase in students requiring greater supports to achieve academically, in recent years state funding for education has shrunk, increasing the financial responsibilities of local governments. Severe austerity cuts put in place by the state hit smaller and more remote school districts hard, as the communities they served had fewer resources to fill in the funding gaps left by the cuts. Since 2015, Georgia’s General Assembly has reversed many of those cuts; however, because of simultaneous changes in the funding system, schools are not seeing the relief this reversal would imply. Specifically, costs associated with student transportation and health insurance for all districts’ non-teaching staff, previously paid for with state dollars, now must be paid through local monies. Thus, while the state has in some way relieved the extreme austerity cuts of the last decade, in other ways it has shifted more of the financial burden of the school system back onto local communities. In rural communities, this burden can be overwhelming, and some districts have teetered on insolvency.

No jobs: While the nation and the state have in many ways recovered from the recession of 2008, that recovery does not impact all communities equally. Georgia ranks as the fourth most economically distressed state in the country, despite the growth and prosperity of Atlanta and other hub cities. Between 2010 and 2015, job growth in rural Georgia was only 3.1%, compared to 10.4% in Atlanta. The projections through 2026 are more striking: Rural job growth is projected to be 1.6%, compared to 11.6% for Atlanta…Across Georgia weekly wages are below the national average. But in many primarily rural counties, weekly wages are half the national average. A wage of $600 per week equates to roughly $31,000 per year, which is below 200% of the federal poverty level for a family of two.

I am uncertain whether the state is willing to make the investment necessary to revive rural communities. I also don’t know of any program that has succeeded in not only enticing young physics or computer science teachers to rural areas, but keeping them there for longer than two years.

Any ideas?

Reader Comments 0

7 comments
jerryeads
jerryeads

I'm ecstatic that a few pols are at least beginning to pay lip service to finding sparks for rural growth. 

Perdue's tenure was devastating to rural schools: he stole 7.6 BILLION dollars from the state's schools over his eight years, much of that BEFORE the crash. That was inconvenient for the Fayettes and Forsyths where the median family makes over $90k. Not so for the Taliaferros and Taylors where that number is WAY less than half that. For those districts, the past governor's thievery was devastating. I'm going from memory now, as I'm long gone from downtown when I had my fingertips on all these data, but at the beginning of Perdue's tenure we counted over 119,000 teachers across the state. When he (and, in fairness, the crash over which he presided) got done, we had under 112,000. The proportional loss of teaching staff was far, far greater in the Taliaferros than it was in the Fayettes. Governor Deal, thankfully, has made some progress in helping the state recover from Perdue's devastation.

Amanda (below), there are indeed many wonderfully dedicated folk who would greatly prefer to live and teach in the rural areas, but it seems the vast majority of new teachers are coming from more populated areas, and, let's face it, twenty-somethings typically want more to do after work than drive to the next county to visit the only self-serve mini-mart within fifty miles. Our two choices (I'm sure there are more) will be to (a) work (HARD) to develop new teachers who grew up and wish to stay rural and (b) entice older folks (e.g., in their 30's and 40's) living in rural areas to return to school to become teachers. 

I was watching the teacher shortage begin well over a decade ago. Policymakers continued to make teaching less and less rewarding by inventing "curricula" (read: lists of pointless "objectives") that no educator in their right mind would foist on a child, and loading up the schools with incredibly poorly made tests that had virtually nothing to do with learning. "The beatings will continue until morale improves" has been and still is the mantra for "improving" education. And they wonder why fewer and fewer people want to teach, and even fewer stay.

Feedback11 (below): Calling "choice" for what it is is most certainly appropriate. There ARE great private schools. Watch the career trajectories for the kids who come out of places like Paideia. Problem is,that one costs $24k a year. If you think you'll get the same education for your kid for the $4-5k you might get from the state to send your kid to Podunk Nameyourdenomination, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Letting naive parents get suckered into non- or, worse, for-profit con games enabled by hands-off let the public be suckered legislators is not a viable solution to the woes of rural public schooling.

In sum, I do hope the state turns its head around. The silly games played by legislators to further decrease funding to the public schools that are the foundation of this republic (e.g., "choice" and tax credits) are just gambits to get votes from naive and gullible voters. Decent funding (yes, bux do make a difference - not pennies but dollars - see Paidiea above) is a huge and necessary part of it, but helping schools to become livable places rather than hellholes populated by unproven objectives and horribly made tests will ultimately change them for the better.


BuddyGreen
BuddyGreen

Its a vicious cycle. The lack of educated people makes for a poor pool from which employers can draw from. Those more qualified and without a monetary interest in the land through agriculture must leave to seek gainful employment. As one who desired to transition back to rural Georgia the decision not to had everything to do with the poor quality we observed with the choices of schools for our soon to be first grader. No amount of vouchers would have changed the decision as our financial situation allows the luxury of any school we choose. The only way I see to attract talented teachers to rural areas is to offer pay well above the current pay scale and this will require the investment of the state as the counties finances are going in the wrong direction. Infrastructure is not the problem we do not need improved facilities we need better teachers and involved parents. This being said all the tax breaks in the world won't help companies overcome the lack of educated prospective employees. 

Zolotisty1
Zolotisty1

As a rural South Georgian, the area below the gnat line, is quickly becoming " an inner city". This regions poor economy has led to a rapid increase in poverty, loss of manufacturing jobs and multiple stressors that have not been effectively engaged by Georgia's DOE, DBHDD or DHS. Services to youth and their family members with physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities are nonexistent. South Georgia's youth feel hopeless and helpless. Just look at this area's suicide rate and the prevalence of opioid abuse and gangs. South Georgia's misery rate is horrendous.  The decline has rapidly increased over the past 16 years. An optimal Education system gives youth a sense of hope and optimism.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

In comments this morning to the business community, Gov. Nathan Deal referenced economic development in rural Georgia, saying: 


If we really want to improve the economic future of rural Georgia, this is one of the best ways possible to do so, because it will allow business leaders to come to their communities and see all that they have to offer. Companies often evaluate a community’s local aviation capabilities when considering new locations and expansions.

The nine rural communities directly impacted by this investment will be Burke, Colquitt, Cook, Macon, Morgan, Polk, Seminole, Washington and Wilkes counties. Many of the towns and cities in these counties lack direct access to our interstate highway system and are unlikely to have such access in the foreseeable future. Their airports provide the best option for job creators interested in viewing their resources. Therefore, these upgraded airports will provide rural Georgia with a competitive advantage and a strong boost in their efforts to attract new companies. The other two are Coweta and Newton Counties. These airport improvements will also relieve pressure on Metro Atlanta regional airports that are handling more and more volume due to increased growth.

As we make these improvements, we will be mindful of the fact that the longer the runway, the bigger the corporate jets and the greater the possibilities for our rural citizens.

Through these important investments, we will further connect our rural communities with our broadening, statewide infrastructure network. Throughout my administration, my team and I have been dedicated to lifting all communities in Georgia, not just our denser population hubs. This is just the latest in our ongoing effort to improve the opportunities of these smaller communities, which serve as the backbone of our state’s overall success.

feedback11
feedback11

Attacking parental choice isn't any kind of answer to solving the problems of sparsely populated rural areas.

Amanda Eubanks
Amanda Eubanks

I love living and teaching in my little rural town. Life has been unkind to many of my students, but they have precious hearts and are grateful for the love, and really anything, we are able to give them. They have computers and good teachers. From what I have seen, we get the same things as the suburban schools - just a couple of years later. That’s fine by me...let them argue over the pros and cons of new things and throw out what doesn’t work so we don’t have to fool with it! I absolutely agree that we need better healthcare options though. I do drive 20+ miles to take my child to the doctor. Many of my students’ parents just can’t do that.

BuddyGreen
BuddyGreen

Keep up the good work Amanda Eubanks. For me Its twenty miles in any direction for hospital, school or the grocery store.