The Intersection

Homeroom with Education Leaders: Equity in Rural School Funding

May 20, 2020

In her opening comments for episode two of The Hunt Institute’s Conversations with State Chiefs, North Dakota Superintendent of Education Kirsten Baesler remarked that states like North Dakota, Idaho, and Wyoming are often referred to as “flyover states,” meaning that state and local leaders must ensure that their voices are heard in the national conversation on critical public policy issues. This is particularly relevant when it comes to educating the nation’s children during the outbreak of COVID-19. In this episode, titled Equity in Rural School Funding and the COVID-19 Pandemic, three state superintendents spoke about the challenges facing rural schools and communities during COVID-19, and what their states are doing to address them. State Superintendents Jillian Balow (Wyoming), Sherri Ybarra (Idaho), and Kirsten Baesler (North Dakota) discussed how their states are responding to the educational challenges coming out of COVID-19; they also shared their insights into how education in their states will look going forward. Additionally, Dr. Carissa Moffat Miller, the Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), brought a high-level overview of the challenges and opportunities being brought to rural education amid the outbreak.

The first part of the episode focused heavily on the challenges facing rural education as schools transition from the traditional brick-and-mortar method of instructional delivery to full-time remote learning. As stated by Dr. Miller, some of the immediate challenges facing rural communities following school closures are comparable to challenges facing their urban and suburban counterparts, such as inequities in broadband and technological access. Other challenges, however, are more specific to rural communities, such as the delivery of instructional packets, as some rural communities can only be accessed with great difficulty, sometimes via plane. The challenges for rural communities in the wake of COVID-19 go beyond education, as stated by Superintendent Balow. Rural communities in Wyoming have been devastated economically by the outbreak, as economic and healthcare services in these communities are being offered at a more limited scale than usual.

Building on the Strengths of Rural Communities

Though faced with daunting challenges, there is work being done in North Dakota, Idaho, and Wyoming to create new opportunities to benefit education in the short- and long-term. For communities to create new opportunities, we must focus on their strengths, rather than approaching the problem with a deficit-based mindset. Superintendent Baesler stresses that North Dakota entered the pandemic with unique advantages, among them well-developed telecommunication and telehealth systems. Baesler emphasized that these advantages were brought about because of rural communities’ need to communicate with other communities and public and/or private entities from a distance; Baesler also mentioned that having Microsoft as a significant presence in North Dakota helps the state excel in telecommunication.

Rural states are also forming public-private partnerships to ensure that students can access high-quality instructional content and have their immediate needs met. In Idaho, the State Department of Education, led by Superintendent Ybarra, is working with the Idaho Digital Learning Alliance to provide online courses and other virtual services. The State Department of Education is also working with Idaho Public Television to broadcast instructional content. At the national level, the United States Department of Agriculture is partnering with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty (Collaborative), McLane Global, and Pepsi Co. to conduct a rapid expansion of the Collaborative’s Meals-to-You program and serve meals to students and families in rural communities. As of May 5, the program has expanded its capacity to serve five million meals per week to rural children throughout the country.

Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money will be critical in helping these states make the necessary investments to ensure that all students can access high-quality instructional content from a distance. In Wyoming’s case, Superintendent Balow stated the need to use CARES funds to prioritize broadband access; with this money, she also aims to create an infrastructure in the state allowing school districts to pivot to online learning with ease.

Where do we go from here?

All panelists agreed that schools will look different in the long-term as a result of the pandemic, and that equity will be at the center of rethinking how schools will look and operate. For one, all leaders in this conversation discussed that they hope to adopt more personalized and/or mastery-based learning approaches. Other potential reforms mentioned in the conversation revolved around grading systems, as questions may arise around the effectiveness of the traditional A-F system, particularly in emergency situations such as the current one.

Long-term reforms will play an important role in discussions on COVID-19 and education, but the predominant element in the discussion, as of now, is meeting student needs and creating plans for a safe return to school. This, as mentioned by the panelists, will require constant communication with local, state, and federal health officials. Additionally, states must figure out whether the use of diagnostic assessments will be needed upon return, and what these assessments will look like.

In summary, COVID-19 brings a wealth of challenges to state education systems, but opportunities for reform also exist from the current challenges. As federal, state, and local leaders work to ensure that student and family needs are met during the pandemic, what can be agreed upon is that school will look different upon return, and that students will learn in ways that we have not seen at scale previously.

View the complete webinar here:

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