Duncan, Vilsack Highlight Need for Rural Ed Investments

Secretaries Duncan and Vilsack encouraged state and local leaders to take advantage of federal programs.
by | April 17, 2012 AT 3:00 PM

Jumpstarting the economy of rural America starts with reinvigorating the education system,  Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during the keynote address Tuesday at the Education Commission of the States’ 2nd annual National Summit on the Role of Education in Economic Development in Rural America.

“As the rural community goes, so goes our nation,” Duncan told an audience of rural education leaders. He laid out three primary challenges for improving education in rural communities: poverty and its associated effect on learning, recruiting and retaining quality teachers and the lack of Internet access.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that in 2010, 16.5 percent of people living in rural communities had fallen below the poverty line (higher than the national average of 15.1 percent). In a 2009 survey by the American Association of School Administrators and the National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition, more than 60 percent of members said that it was extremely or moderately difficult to recruit teachers to their districts. As Governing reported this month, the Federal Communications Commission has estimated that 18 million Americans, many residing in rural areas, cannot access a broadband Internet connection.

During Tuesday’s address and subsequent question-and-answer session, Duncan and Vilsack emphasized the Obama administration’s initiatives that are intended to address those challenges.

Poverty is a complex and longstanding problem that will require economic growth and a concerted effort to build the middle class in order to be resolved, Duncan said. But the White House has more concrete plans to improve the teaching workforce and add more technological capability in rural schools.

Duncan pushed the RESPECT program, a $5 billion competitive grant program proposed in President Barack Obama’s budget that would encourage states and school districts to comprehensively overhaul the polices for training and retaining teachers. Some examples include making teacher colleges more selective, overhauling tenure and evaluation systems and linking salaries with student performance.

He repeated a previous call to vastly improve teacher pay (up to $150,000 in an ideal scenario) and add incentives for teachers taking jobs in hard-to-staff areas, such as rural schools. “If we don’t elevate the profession, I think we put a real cap on what we can accomplish,” Duncan said.

While the idea of six-figure salaries might seem unfeasible in the current economic climate, Vilsack encouraged state and local leaders to present a number of White House initiatives as a total package for recruiting potential educators. He pointed to the home ownership programs and student loan forgiveness proposals sponsored by the administration as examples of what could be included. Facilitating the purchase of a home and financial stability through those programs allows teachers to “root” themselves in the community, Vilsack said, which then addresses the problem of retaining good teachers.

“We’ve got to look beyond compensation,” he said. “We need to think creatively about how we can create a package to encourage” teachers to stay in rural areas.

Duncan highlighted the School Improvement Grant program, the impact of which has been called into question in some recent studies, as an example of the White House’s commitment to rural education. Less than 20 percent of rural schools are eligible for the program (which requires schools to commit to one of four turnaround models), Duncan said, but they have received 25 percent of funding awarded for the $4 billion program.

The Education Secretary also pointed to the $8 billion proposed in the president’s budget for community colleges as part of a broader push to improve career and technical training. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 3.5 million open but unfilled jobs in the United States as of January -- a fact often cited in the call for more job training. Duncan urged state and local leaders to petition their Congressional representatives to take action on the proposal and to apply for funds already available through the Trade Assistance Act. “It’s about giving students choices,” he said. “It’s got to be college and careers.”

Finally, Vilsack offered the $3 billion for broadband funding in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act as evidence of the White House’s efforts to increase Internet access, which has gained importance in broadening educational opportunities and ensuring students are ready for the modern workplace, he said. The money has paid for 300 projects in rural areas in recent years, bringing high-speed Internet to 7 million people and 30,000 anchor institutions, such as schools and community colleges.

During his remarks, Duncan also placed the onus on states and localities to invest in these priorities. He repeated a call, introduced by Obama in his State of the Union address in January, for state governments to spend more money on higher education and other learning initiatives.

“We can’t be the answer by ourselves,” Duncan said.