IT JUST ISN’T FAIR

I can remember when my daughter came back from 6 weeks at the University of Pittsburgh and the Governor’s School for International Relations. She had called us during that time and told us that she felt a bit overwhelmed by the kids she was with. They came from mostly suburban school districts and had boatloads of Advanced Placement courses debate clubs with coaches, quite a number of guidance counselors (some designated as college counselors). At age 16, she was coming up against a problem that has plagued poor and rural districts forever.

Her high school was one of the better school districts in Clarion County. As a former school superintendent, I had some idea of what a school needed in such areas of math, science, physical education, SAT prep, etc. She graduated with 70 other classmates. There was relatively little that the school board and superintendent could do to jack up the funds for providing for the children.

The arguments about not funding poor and rural districts has a long and checkered history. The newest poison dart is that these districts are not “efficient.” That is code for it’s their fault that things are not going well for their students. What is needed is a wholesale review of how they dispense education with an eye to saving money. Sometimes I choke on that set of words. Does it make sense that a school district that does not spend as much dough as a wealthy suburban district, should become more efficient by spending less money?

The other call is for consolidation. In some states, it is not combining the districts, but using joint usage of staff and programming, and then districts can affect savings. Why should a county with 3000 students not combine with a district next door with 2000 students and share staff? Let me present you with the answer. In a state with county school systems or a state with a massive geography, sharing staff results in a staff member spending more time on the road than in the classroom or in some office. Consolidation has worked over the past 85 years. We had over 130,000 school districts in the 1930’s and now about 13,000.

That kind of consolidation certainly had its advantages. One of the disadvantages was that schools moved further away from towns, students and parents. The idea of doing things jointly works with purchasing, in-service programming, administrative services like payroll and such. It really does not work with staff most of the time.

My wife and I have been volunteering at a local rural high school. We have been meeting with 10 young men and women in their senior and junior years. As I walk through the building and see the classrooms and science labs, I think about my own grandchildren’s schools. The comparisons don’t even start. The opportunities in music and the arts and sports and other extracurricular activities don’t compare. That affords the wealthy school district to give their students every opportunity a public school can imagine.

Even the career and technical center offers so much more in the wealthy district that it can almost guarantee a job for their graduates. Do you ever wonder why the phrase “Not everyone should go to college,” resonates more in a poor rural school than it does in a wealthy district. Of course poor kids don’t have the skill or intellect to go to college. If they do go they generally go to public colleges and wind up with lots of debt. During our time running scholarship programs in Pennsylvania, New York State and West Virginia, we completely disproved that idiocy.

The schools in rural areas have just as many bright kids, percentagewise, as in wealthy schools. The difference is the support they get at home and the lack of logistical and human support in their schools.

One of the outlets and opportunities for rural kids is to go into the service and get a chance to go to college while there, or have the service pay for their college education. That is why a rural high school sometimes looks like a recruiting station.

For the past 39 years, we have been advocating for rural schools and communities. There is still some fight left in us to continue our advocacy. Here in South Carolina, the rural/urban differences are not only palpable, but almost deliberate. These kids need our help. We are desperately looking for some white knights in the legislature and an angel that might help us begin a scholarship program.

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