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22 Senators Urge Duncan to Support Rural School Districts

Twenty-two U.S. Senators wrote to Education Secretary Arne Duncan as the Senate began consideration of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind) strongly urging him to ensure that rural states and school districts are given adequate opportunities to participate in the initiatives developed by the Obama Administration.

"While all schools share continued challenges in addressing student achievement, it is clear rural and frontier districts face unique circustances compared to their more urban-centered peers," the letter stated. Signers included 21 Democratic senators and independent Bernie Sanders with large rural populations.

The senators asked the Education Department "to commit to ensuring rural and frontier states and districts are fairly represented in Department priorities....We call on the Department to review each and every education reform initiative from the standpoint of urban, rural and frontier districts and provide adequate technical assistance for states and districts to compete for funding." To that end, the senators asked the Department to consider establishing an Office of Rural Education to focus on strategies tailored to meeting the needs of rural and frontier schools districts.

"We are concerned the Department's proposals fail to provide realistic opportunities for rural and frontier states and districts to compete for such funding....Requirements that emphasize the creation of charter schools may not best serve the needs of isolated and low population density communities which are already struggling to support one school. We request the Department to consider ways to address unique issues facing rural states and districts. Strategies such as distance learning provide a gtreater opportunity for rural and frontier districts to address education standards, including studand achievement and professional development."

The letter cited a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that identified distinctive challenges that arise from small, geographically isolated school districts: "Most rural schools report greater difficulties in recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, due to inability to offer competitive salaries, geographic isolation and,for some, severe weather.

"Rural districts often have fewer personnel, creating additional challenges in providing professional development opportunities. Small districts are often located long distances from other districts, towns, and universities, drastically reducing opportunities to partner or collaborate. For-profit and non-profit education services are simply unavailable in rural districts."

Additionally, the long distances students must travel between school and home make it more difficult to participate in traditional remedial services, mentoring, and after school programs. Furthering the challenges, the GAO study found the average per pupil cost of education in small rural districts is 20 percent greater than the average per pupil cost in nonrural districts.

Democratic senators who signed the letter were Max Baucus (MT), Patrick Leahy (VT), Jeff Bingaman (NM), Maria Cantwell (WA), Tom Udall (NM), Blanche Lincoln (AR), Tim Johnson (SD), Jon Tester (MT), Russ Feingold (WI), Herb Kohn (WI), Patty Murray (WA), Ben Nelson (NE), Jay Rockefeller (WV), Michael Bennet (CO), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Al Franken (MN), Mark Udall (CO), Sherrod Brown (OH), Mary Landreau (LA), Kent Conrad (ND), and Byron Dorgan (ND).