Ohio can help rewrite rural education narrative

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

“The narrative of rural education is being rewritten,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared last month to a group of more than 300 education leaders at the Rural Education National Forum in Columbus. Sharing stories of success from pioneering rural districts across the country, the secretary stressed the importance of technology and innovation to increase college completion and transform opportunities for young people in rural America.

With the fourth largest rural school enrollment in the U.S., Ohio must play a lead role in this new rural education narrative.

Promising work is already being done through The Ohio Appalachian Collaborative (OAC), a partnership between Battelle for Kids and 21 school districts in Appalachia Ohio, to accelerate college and career readiness in rural communities by working together on ways to improve educator effectiveness, increase student access to advanced learning, and share school improvement costs.

During the Rural Forum, secretary Duncan called out the OAC’s work as having “national implications” that could inform educational improvement efforts in suburban and urban districts throughout the country.

Access to high-quality educational opportunities is essential to the future success of rural students, the health of rural communities, and the overall strength of Ohio’s economy. One in four Ohio adults have completed a four-year college degree, but that number dips to just 12 percent for rural Ohioans. It is imperative that we close this rural opportunity gap, while elevating educational attainment for everyone in the state.

That is why we strongly urge the Ohio Straight A Fund Governing Board to support the OAC Personalized Learning Network’s $15 million proposal to increase access to blended learning and dual enrollment programs in 27 rural districts serving more than 48,000 students (50 percent in poverty) in southeast Ohio, including several existing members of the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative. This one-time investment will reap substantial and lasting value for educators, parents, students, and employers across the region by:

Increasing the number of students securing dual enrollment credit; Expanding access to postsecondary opportunities; Saving students and families millions of dollars in college costs per year through college credit earned in high school; and Nurturing a more talented workforce to help revitalize local economies, particularly in areas impacted by Marcellus and Utica shale activity.

Ohio’s Straight A Fund has generated tremendous enthusiasm as evidenced by the 570 proposals seeking nearly $900 million that were submitted for the first round of funding. Understandably, many districts and their stakeholders are working hard to make their case.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, for example, recently advocated for $13 million in Straight A funding to pay for technology upgrades in the city’s public schools on top of the $6 million they’ve already received through the program.

For the students, parents, educators, and communities in the OAC Personalized Learning Network, Straight A is an essential investment at a critical time.

Consider that the 48,000 students served by the consortium is equivalent to the size of Ohio’s big urban districts. And, when the yearly operating budgets of the 27 rural districts are combined, they equal roughly 50 percent of the operating budgets of the state’s largest districts. We share these facts not to engage in an urban and rural debate about fairness, but to demonstrate the incredible impact that Straight A dollars could have on the future of thousands of students, the economic livelihood of the Appalachian region, and the overall prosperity of our great state.

Dr. Richard Murray is executive director of the Coalition of Rural and Appalachian Schools, which works to advocate for and support the 136 school districts, institutions of higher learning, and other educational agencies in the 35-county Appalachian Ohio region.