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National Report Quantifies Tech Inequities Faced by Rural Students

Nationally, 13.4 percent of rural households lack the minimum necessary broadband connection for streaming educational videos or virtual classrooms, according to the National Rural Education Association.

Internet Access in Schools
(TNS) — Students attending rural school districts across Pennsylvania often grapple with limited Internet access and are offered fewer school-based resources such as psychologists and counselors, according to a new report released last week.

The nonpartisan report titled Why Rural Matters 2023 was compiled by the National Rural Education Association, which for the past 10 years has described the condition of rural public education by examining the needs and inequities affecting 9.5 million rural students across the United States.

This year's report, which comes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, largely found that children in rural schools — more than half of whom are located in 11 states including Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia — lack basic Internet access, require more availability of mental health supports and face bigger transportation issues than their non-rural counterparts.

"Rural schools, such as those in Western PA, have incredible potential and success in preparing children not only for higher education, but for living wage jobs," Karen Eppley, a Penn State teaching professor who was one of the report's authors, said in an email to the Post-Gazette. "But the report highlights how rural schools aren't operating on an equal playing field."

Nationally, 13.4 percent of rural households lack minimum broadband connection for streaming educational videos or virtual classrooms, the report found. And rural districts see fewer resources meaning that on average 310 students are given access to only a single school counselor or psychologist, a critical problem in Pennsylvania.

According to the report, Pennsylvania is one of the highest-priority states when it comes to access to supports for learning and development. That means that on average there are 263 students with access to one school counselor or psychologist, and almost 10 percent of rural school-aged children do not have health insurance.

Also, more than 14 percent of rural households do not have Internet access, something Ed Albert, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, said came to light during the pandemic.

"You literally had parents driving 45 minutes to a school to download assignments, drive back home, do the assignments and drive back and upload the assignments," Mr. Albert said. "As far as broadband, that to me should be as available as electric is in the house, water is in the house."

He noted that rural districts in the state often struggle to fill teacher vacancies because their salaries are not as high as those offered at suburban schools. And transportation in rural districts — some of which are as big as 300 square miles, requiring students to be on a bus for almost two hours a day — is impacted by a shortage of bus drivers seen across the state and country.

"I just think post-pandemic has exacerbated this," Mr. Albert said of those challenges. "I think the problems have always been there, I just think they've come out more in the open now."

While rural students across the state struggle with fewer resources, their educational outcomes ranked fair in terms of science, reading and math scores, something Ms. Eppley attributed to Pennsylvania's "long history of commitment to community schools and local school districts," and a "solid body of research suggesting that community schools mediate achievement gaps, particularly for children who live in homes below the poverty line."

But students could do better, officials said, with policy change and modifications to how public schools in the state are funded.

In Pennsylvania, school districts largely rely on local taxes to cover costs of educating students, with 53 percent of funding coming from those sources. An additional 36 percent comes from the state and 11 percent from federal funding.

But that system was ruled unconstitutional by a Commonwealth Court judge in February because of its reliance on property taxes. That means that students in lower-income districts do not have the same opportunities and resources as students in wealthy schools, leading to wide achievement gaps on state assessments, the ruling found.

According to the report, Pennsylvania ranks 14th in a ratio of state revenue to local dollar, meaning 13 states have less reliance on local tax dollars relative to state dollars.

"The state contribution is inadequate, on average, and leads to an over-reliance on local funding, which then leads to inequitable school funding for children living in under-resourced rural communities," Ms. Eppley said.

She noted that cyber charter tuition also has a "huge financial impact" on rural schools. In Pennsylvania, districts are required to pay tuition for students who attend cyber and charter schools, sometimes adding up to millions of dollars. And the number of children switching to cyber schools increased during the pandemic when traditional public schools moved to online learning to keep students and staff safe. Those students for the most part have not returned.

Legislators serving on Pennsylvania's Basic Education Funding Commission have been hosting hearings across the state to hear from school districts, teachers and students about how they're impacted by the state's funding system. The goal of the commission is to optimize the education funding system. A report from the commission could be completed in January, with recommendations delivered to Gov. Josh Shapiro ahead of his February budget proposal.

As lawmakers continue to hear from districts about what challenges they face and the resources needed, Ms. Eppley is hopeful that rural districts will see a "dramatic increase" in the number of children covered by health insurance along with a more equitable balance between local and state funding.

"Moving forward, I'd want school leaders and policy makers to recognize that our rural school districts, by and large, are succeeding despite extreme financial challenges," Ms. Eppley said.

Mr. Albert added that the rural report is just another means to highlight the pressing needs of school districts across the state that were first brought to light in the lawsuit — which the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools was part of — and through the Basic Education Committee hearings.

"I think we clearly identified the fault," Mr. Albert said. "We know what it is. Now it takes time for the legislatures to put their heads together and come up with a way to properly fund education so kids in all ZIP codes can have the same opportunities."

©2023 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.