Despite much appreciated state and federal support during the pandemic, New York’s rural schools face unprecedented challenges.
Our state’s rural economy has been diminished first by the Great Recession and its historic outward migration and then by the impact of the pandemic (that with its increased focus on internet connectivity and forced isolation had a disproportionate impact on our rural communities.) Now we’re fighting back.
The state and federal governments have seen the wisdom of allocating significant resources toward recovery. Yet, tremendous and inequitable disparities remain. Rural school districts have identified the following six challenges as critically important to the future New York’s rural children.
Addressing them will take creativity and collaboration, and the Rural Schools Association is committed to working with policymakers to find sound, practical solutions to these difficult but vitally important issues.
We're proud to present our legislative priorities for 2022-2023
In the Fall of 2022, RSA conducted a survey to determine the top legislative priorities of rural school leaders. The response was significant and the results were conclusive. Six items were listed almost two to one over other concerns. Our rural students cannot currently compete with their urban and suburban counterparts. Despite graduating at the state’s highest rates, three quarters of them never receive any form of higher education credential. Jobs requiring only a high school education no longer await our young adults on their return to their home communities. Forming an effective approach to their success is our state’s only hope of thriving into the next generation. Here’s what needs to be done:
Despite healthy aid levels from Albany and Washington in the past couple of years, there is an increasing concern about the “funding cliff” when the state has fulfilled its 3 year “full funding” program and federal rescue funding has been expended.
The state must prepare for the next generation of equitable and adequate funding. Generation old Foundation Aid factors no longer reflect the present needs of students. Mental health, transience, post-pandemic effects and the influx of English Language Learners (to name just a few) currently pose significant challenges for our rural schools and yet the present formula fails to recognize their impact.
Work must begin immediately to ensure that a new formula is in place next year when all schools will “be on Save Harmless.”
Student Physical & Mental Health
The pandemic has created physical and psychological challenges for all students, but they have been exacerbated by the isolation created by distance and lack of internet access in rural areas (essentially creating solitary confinement for many children.)
Acting out, slowed emotional growth and lower learning levels have all been identified as issues in need of immediate and significant attention if this generation of rural students is to recover and thrive.
Addressing these unique post pandemic symptoms may be our generation’s greatest challenge. Just think of it; we have high school students that never attended middle school, going straight from elementary to high school. Our failure to meet their needs would have lasting and far reaching social implications.
School Staffing Shortages
Whether it’s hard to find subject area teachers or non-instructional staff, the inability to attract and retain school staff looms large in the concerns of RSA member districts.
While enticing teachers into rural districts has always been a challenge, the competition in the midst of a general teaching shortage has increased the magnitude of the problem. Districts compete with each other and with other businesses for non-instructional staff. Without state incentives to work in rural schools, districts will be compelled to use non-certified educators and cope with potentially sub-par support.
Whether we choose to help repay student loans (like we do in urban districts) or subsidize housing or authorize a four day school week (like other rural states) we can no longer ignore the unique challenges of securing school staff for the one third of our state’s students who live in rural communities.
The slaughter of school children and staff continues unabated. Substantial resources must be provided to districts to offer them the best available protection, while state policies involving the interplay between mental illness and gun access must result in diminishing the likelihood that schools remain the “target of choice” for those disposed to mass violence.
It is undebatable that protecting the children in our care must be our state’s highest priority. Simply put, if we can’t bring children to a central location without leaving their safety to chance and hope, we have no business bringing them there.
Both education funding and state policies on the mental health-gun access nexus must be addressed if we are to literally save the children in our care.
Recent test scores reveal a level of learning loss and a lack of progress that would have been unthinkable had it not been for the unique circumstances of the pandemic.
After school, summer programming, weekend programming, and coordinated recreational/educational activities, in addition to traditional supplemental educational support services are needed immediately to reverse the course for this generation of students.
Without such assistance, the effects of the pandemic will compound over the course of a student’s educational experience, ultimately having a profound impact not only on their own quality of life, but that of society at large. The old expression “if you think education’s expensive, try ignorance” will become our state’s chief concern if allowed to play out unaddressed.
This concern has two distinct aspects: First, there is the issue of the lack of availability of transportation staff. This can be addressed by the state enacting its own school bus driver licensing requirements and through financial incentives.
The second concern is the timeline and practicality of electric buses in rural school districts. The state needs a back-up funding stream for its electric bus mandate, should the environmental bond act fail.
It needs a workable timetable for implementation and its funding needs to include not only the cost of adding charging stations, but the removal of existing fueling stations, the impact on shared services with municipalities and the lack of competition among electric bus companies (leading to exorbitant pricing.)