Committee discusses state of rural education

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — More than half of Pennsylvania’s school districts are rural, but their needs are often overlooked in larger debates over issues such as school funding and improving student achievement, a rural education advocate told the House Education Committee on Tuesday.
Although both rural and large urban districts face similar problems, major news organizations leave the struggles of rural schools less publicized, said Arnold Hillman, a former school superintendent who works for a consulting and advocacy firm specializing in rural issues.
“So if we don’t see them, we sometimes think they don’t exist,” Hillman said.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association considers 260 of the state’s 501 school districts — more than half — to be rural, Hillman said.
Some are spread out over great distances and face substantial transportation costs as a result, he said. The Keystone Central School District, for example, encompasses all of Clinton County in the north-central part of the state — 983 square miles.
Retaining qualified teachers is another challenge, Hillman said, noting that a teacher with 18 years experience and a bachelor’s degree earns nearly $78,000 a year in the Council Rock School District in Bucks County, while a similarly qualified teacher in the Forbes Road School in Fulton County earns about $39,000 a year.
“Teachers are leaving in the middle of the state to go other places where (districts) pay more,” he said.
Rural-school teachers are confronted with a dizzying array of subjects to cover, between state and federal mandates outlining the government’s expectations, and they are hard-pressed to focus much of their time on any specific area, he said.
Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Luzerne, expressed some frustration that Hillman did not offer any guidance to the Legislature on how to better assist the schools.
“Based on what you’ve said, it almost sounds to me like you’re telling state government, ’Just give us the money, and let us do our thing,”’ she said.
Hillman responded that lawmakers and policymakers should simply ease up on regulations and “let the reins loose a little bit.”
“We’re just saying, no more new stuff, because it becomes impossible to get rid of the old stuff,” he said.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jess Stairs, said the discussion would help set the stage for lawmakers to focus more attention on rural school districts.
Stairs, R-Westmoreland, has introduced a resolution that would create a special commission to study rural education and report its findings to the Legislature by June 30, 2004. The commission would examine issues such as academic performance, spending, and access to postsecondary education programs.
“We want to look at rural education so it’s not overlooked,” Stairs said.
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