America has a rural school problem, and it needs to be addressed
By: Sam Pimental – 2023 Summer Intern
It’s no secret that rural schools are inferior to suburban schools, but it needs to be brought to the spotlight more as education is the future of this nation and the current system puts rural students at a disadvantage.
According to a statistic from The Postsecondary National Policy Institute, only 21.1% of rural students earned a bachelor’s or higher. This is a horrible sign for these schools as the percentage of non-rural students is 35.7%. According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York if a student does not earn a bachelor’s degree, they are on average going to make $22,000 less per year than somebody who did earn a bachelor’s degree.
Even a rural student who earns a bachelor’s degree tends to make less than non-rural students who earn a bachelor’s degree at around $46,000 per year for rural and $54,000 per year for non-rural.
It’s clear that these students are being neglected and underrepresented in colleges, but very little has been done to combat this. According to a study done by Penn State University, rural students in Pennsylvania are the most likely to drop out at a rate above 6%. That’s far higher than the state average of 4.6%.
While the state average dropped from 5.4% in 2009, rural dropout percentages have stayed the same. In fact, the funding for schools in Pennsylvania was so unbalanced that the courts found our system to be unconstitutional. Poor areas had much less funding than higher-income areas.
Why does this happen? This happens because our education system is mostly funded through local property taxes. In poorer areas where the local property taxes are lower, the schools have less money to work with. Rather than having an equally distributed level of funding per student you instead get schools such as Lower Merion which spends $17,409 per student per year. That is above the national average at $13,201 per year, versus Mount Union Area high school which can only afford to spend $6,324 per student each year.
Annually, that is over $11,000 less per student, putting rural students at a severe disadvantage. It continues to be one of the reasons why rural students are more likely to drop out and less likely to advance to higher education.
Within these two schools, you can see a massive difference in performance, according to Niche, which is an educational research organization.
At Lower Merion which is an affluent suburb of Philadelphia, 84% of students are proficient in reading and 74% are proficient in math. While at Mount Union which is located in rural Huntingdon County, only 35% are proficient in reading and a meager 19% are proficient in math, the difference between these two is as night and day as the funding.
We can’t ignore these students’ needs any longer, as 26% of Pennsylvania’s population is rural. That means our own education system is putting over 26% of our students at a disadvantage. Just because of the county or town they were born in. In fact, Pennsylvania has more rural counties than non-rural counties –48 rural versus 19 non-rural.
If we were to get a piece of legislation passed that would require the state to equally spend per student based on all of the tax revenue to the state this would be a massive start to equalizing the playing field for rural and non-rural students. While there are other factors involved, it’s impossible to ignore all the statistics and facts which point to per-student spending as a massive difference in performance and education for school districts.
The problem with the current funding system is that schools can only make so much money from property taxes and desperately need more than what the taxpayers have to offer.
Poorer areas will have cheaper land value and thus it leads to a less valuable property tax. When schools can barely keep the lights on and the heat on how can we expect them to have enough money to truly educate our children? In fact, many school buildings in rural areas don’t have enough funding to support themselves, so we are being forced to shut down rural schools and move kids to more crowded buildings due to a lack of funding.
If our kids are crowded, cold, and not getting an education, it could make them bitter and angry. How can we expect them to succeed? It is imperative we fix this problem.
Children are the future of the country, and we all benefit if they have a chance to reach their highest potential.
Sam Pimental wrote this opinion piece while interning for the World Affairs Council of Harrisburg and PA Media Group. It was published here.