Maine Schools in Focus: Maine’s Schools Are Much More Rural than Most Other States’
Many Mainers were surprised that the 2010 U.S. Census found Maine to be “the most rural state” in the nation. Alaskans and Wyoming-ites have good-naturedly questioned this finding, but an ongoing examination of rural education lists Maine as the state with the fifth highest percentage of rural schools. The Rural School and Community Trust (RSCT) publishes a biennial review, entitled Why Rural Matters. It rates the 50 states on five “gauges” describing characteristics of each state’s rural schools.
The most recent report, Why Rural Matters 2013-14, identified Maine as the one state nationwide where addressing the needs of rural schools mattered the most (Johnson et al., 2014, p. 9). Why? Because 67.5% of Maine schools qualify as rural, based on data provided by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) – next only to Montana, South Dakota, Vermont, and North Dakota. Fifty-seven percent of Maine students qualified as “rural students,” meaning that they attended schools in areas defined by the U.S. Census as “rural remote,” “rural distant,” or “rural fringe” (nces.ed.gov). This was the second highest percentage in the country next to Vermont. Further, 60% of Maine’s state education funds go to “rural districts”—the highest rate in the country.
Clearly, it’s vital that we recognize the highly rural nature of Maine’s PreK-12 schooling system and that we accommodate policies and practices to its special features. Why Rural Matters 2013-14 makes the case that our national (and often our state) education laws, policies, and procedures do not adequately honor the particular needs of rural schools and populations. Indeed, rural families and schools constitute a small portion of our country’s families and schools, so education practices, systems, and policies are likely geared to non-rural – and in the past century, especially to urban – contexts. Nationwide, only 20% of students and only 33% of schools are classified as “rural”; 23% of state school funding flows to rural districts nationwide compared to our 60% (Johnson et al., 2014).
So, what are some of the unique assets and challenges that come with being one of the most rural education environments in the country? To oversimplify, rural schools face the same challenges as their communities: economic stagnation, loss of population, higher proportions of low-income families and adults with lower levels of education. Students face longer bus rides, a narrower range of educational and co-curricular opportunities, and fewer specialized teachers than their suburban and urban peers. On the flip side, rural schools tend to be smaller, provide more personalized instruction, and can guarantee attention to all children on a daily basis. Mara Casey Tieken, a professor at Bates College, writes that rural schools share a symbiotic relationship with their communities, shaping the social, cultural, and economic viability of their entire regions (2014).
What particular challenges and assets do Maine’s many rural schools face? On their Socioeconomic Challenges gauge, the RSCT rated the conditions for our schools as “critical” (p. 17). Maine schools serve a higher proportion of students with special needs than rural schools nationwide. Our schools match the national average for free-and-reduced lunch eligibility. Our communities experience adult unemployment at the national average, but NCES data indicate that 13.1% of our 5-to-17-year-olds live in families in poverty, the highest rate in the nine Northeastern states (NCES: Rural Education in America, Table A.1.a.-6). These indicators demonstrate a somewhat higher than average set of socioeconomic challenges for Maine’s rural educators and schools.
Despite these above average challenges, Maine’s rural students perform slightly better than the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. Our scores on the Educational Outcomes gauge ranked in the middle of the pack compared to other states. Perhaps reflecting the larger size of our rural population, our students tested somewhat lower than rural students in our five New England neighbor states (Johnson et al., 2014, p. 25). Nationally, it is important to note, rural students currently outperform city and town students on the NAEP reading and math tests. On average, the high school completion rate of rural students is also second only to suburban schools’ completion rates (NCES: The Status of Rural Education, 2011).
These two patterns—Maine’s more challenging rural demographics and our relatively high performance—suggest that there is much to laud in the ways our rural schools and faculties are functioning. In general, nationwide, surveys of teachers reveal that rural teachers are, next to suburban teachers, most positive about teaching and learning conditions in their schools (NCES: The Status of Rural Education, 2011).
Curiously, though, Maine’s statewide education policy climate is not as supportive of rural schools as is the case in many other states. RSCT’s 2014 report ranks Maine in the middle of the pack on its Educational Policy Context gauge. On one hand, our per-pupil expenditures for instruction (teaching and learning activities) ranks about $1,200 higher than the national average. But our:
- “state revenues to schools per local dollar” are 2.4% lower than the national average. That is, our communities—where the median household income is $7,500 below the national average—pay a higher portion of the school bill than in many other states.
- ratio of instructional to transportation expenditures is 8.5% lower than the national average. We spend a higher proportion of our budgets for transportation compared to what we spend for teaching and learning.
- rural teacher salaries fall $3,300—5.7%—below the national rural teacher average.
The profile emerging from these data from recent years suggests that Maine’s rural schools are performing well, at least when compared to other states’ rural schools and to city and town schools. But, as a recent Washington Post article on East Millinocket illustrates (Bangor Daily News, 2/13/17), our relative reliance on local communities to fund rural schools, the challenges of paying our rural teachers a salary comparable to others’, and the drain of transportation—and perhaps other rural-specific costs—on rural school budgets threatens our capacity to maintain support for teaching and learning.
This leaves us with several questions:
- Does Maine’s funding policy—Essential Programs and Services augmented by optional additional local allocations—sufficiently address the costs associated with ensuring a high-quality education to all children who live in “rural fringe,” “rural distant,” and “rural remote” communities (57.2% of Maine students)?
- In particular, does Maine’s policy environment provide for adequate and accessible specialized education services in all rural areas where it is difficult for individual schools and districts to provide such services alone or even collaboratively?
- To what extent do lower salaries encourage higher turnover in rural teaching and administrative positions and discourage applicants for those positions?
- Are Maine’s internet-based resources to teachers and students ample and accessible to every rural school, teacher, and student? Is this system supported by strong professional development opportunities for teachers and principals, statewide?
These are hardly new challenges. The current Blue Ribbon Commission and a receptive Education Committee are exploring changes to the education funding formula and greater equity of services across districts. Policymakers have also recently proposed statewide teacher contracts, regionalization of administrative and student support services, expansion of digital learning resources, and new pathways for teacher credentialing. In weighing these proposals, it is imperative that they be evaluated through a rural lens. Imposing solutions on rural schools that are designed for more densely populated and service-heavy regions will too frequently fall short of their goals.
DelReal, J. and Brown, E. (2017). In places like East Millinocket, school choice could mean no choice — or school. Bangor Daily News (2/13/17), reprinted from The Washington Post (2/11/17).
Johnson, J, Showalter, D. Klein, R., and Lester, C. (2014). Why rural matters 2013-14. Washington D.C.: Rural School and Community Trust. (www.ruraledu.org).
NCES: National Center for Education Statistics (www.nces.ed.gov).
Tieken, M. C. (2014). Why rural schools matter. Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press.
**Any opinions, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the Maine Schools in Focus briefs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect institutional positions or views of the College of Education and Human Development or the University of Maine.**