Ep. 106: Talking Rural Education with Mike McShane and Andy Smarick

March 19, 2019

In today’s episode of EdChoice Chats, our Director of National Research Mike McShane talks with Andy Smarick of the R Street Institute. The two discuss the most interesting and shocking findings in No Longer Forgotten: The Triumphs and Struggles of Rural Education in America, a book they edited.

Mike McShane: Welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice. Today on the podcast I’m having a conversation with Andy Smarick, who is the Civil Society Education and Work Director at the R Street Institute. This will be kind of an interesting podcast because he and I edited a book together, and so while I’m sort of ostensibly interviewing Andy, we’re really kind of having a conversation with each other.

We edited the book, No Longer Forgotten: The Triumphs and Struggles of Rural Education in America. It was just released in the fall of 2018 by Rowman & Littlefield, and it was a part of a project that he and I actually started in collaboration with the American Enterprise Institute. We hosted an event back at I think the beginning of 2018 at AEI, where we had a series of experts from all across the country in a variety of areas who study both rural education and the issues, the kind of macro issues that are affecting rural schools and rural communities right now.

We had this event at the American Enterprise Institute, presented all of the papers that eventually became chapters there and got a lot of great feedback, and then over the process of a couple months refined the chapters and made them into, eventually, the book that is available at your friendly, local, neighborhood online bookseller. Andy and I dig into both the kind of macro issues that are facing rural communities like the opioid epidemic and also some of the more micro issues—so how individual policies intersect rural schools. Without further ado, here’s a conversation with Andy Smarick of the R Street Institute. Andy, what got you interested in this topic?

Andy Smarick: Well, there are probably a couple things. One is, having done education policy for some time—not just the writing and thinking about it but actually working inside of government—when you work for a statewide body—and I’d worked for a state legislature and then two different state departments of education, state boards of education—you realize that there are these parts of states, and therefore parts of national education policy, that have been neglected. There are lots of good reasons we are focused as a community on urban schools and even some suburban issues, but rural education has largely been left out, and I think that has a lot to do with just where people are, where foundations are, where most colleges and universities are and so forth.

There’s this other part where it’s just like a lot of people don’t know all that much about rural areas, and the politics in those places are different than politics in cities. So, it just felt to me that this was a big part of the conversation that was being either purposely avoided or just unintentionally avoided, and those are the kind of areas I like to dig my nose into. How about you? You live in a state, Missouri, that has a bunch of different rural communities, right?

Mike McShane: No, that’s what’s funny, is that I think that that was actually a big prompter of this. Just number one, before I moved home to Kansas City a few years ago, I lived in Washington, D.C., and folks would kind of talk about where I’m from like it was a foreign country. On one level, I grew up in the city. I mean, Kansas City is a city in the metropolitan area of like between a million and a half and two million people. I am not a person from the country, but I think people thought that I was from that. I was like, wow, man, if even educated and well-informed people had that sort of misunderstanding of the general geography, there’s got to be a problem.

Then also, the social scientist in me, a couple years ago when that paper that Anne Case and Angus Deaton put out that documented these, quote/unquote, “deaths of despair,” I’m this kind of eternal optimist. I think that the data that we have on sort of the human experience of the last 100 years, if not 300 years, has been just this overwhelmingly positive story where we see all over the world people getting healthier and wealthier and, you know, each year just being better than the last. They were some of the first people to document that there are actually parts of America and particular demographics in America that, for the first time in I don’t even know how long, were actually seeing their lives shortening. Average life expectancy was actually going down, and it’s like in all of the incredible innovations and everything that’s happening, this place is clearly getting missed because of what’s happening here.

I just thought, from just the kind of perspective … it’s sort of morbid to say, but just the human suffering that was clearly taking place in some of these areas, I just wanted to learn more about it. Usually, doing one of these edited volumes is fun when you’re kind of curious about a topic because, as you and I weren’t able to do, where are you going to recruit these brilliant people who are experts in things? I’m not an expert in really any of this stuff but was able to recruit these incredible experts to give that information. From that, I would be interested to know what would you say? What were two or three key findings from the volume that you took away from that?

Andy Smarick: Well, the first one was, let’s say of a particular finding… It was more the entire chapter, the staggering human effects of the opioid crisis.

Mike McShane: Oh, my goodness, I know.

Andy Smarick: The chapter by [Sally] Satel and [Clayton] Hale, which just goes through a bunch of the data that I think most people aren’t all that familiar with on why opioids, why the illicit use has risen, where it has risen, but then the underlying issues of why is that the case. Everything from doctors prescribing things differently to the ease of getting some of these. You might have a friend or a friend of a friend who has a prescription that wasn’t totally used. In rural communities in particular, the conditions that led to the deaths of despair and all these small stories. You get addicted to heroin and then you move on to this, or you’re on disability and you’re in chronic pain and so you end up using.

Just the effects of this, even though the data from this chapter showed that it’s not necessarily a problem yet that eighth or ninth graders or even the high school students in rural areas are disproportionately using. It’s that the effects of the addiction crisis so permeate some communities, especially in rural America, especially in broad swaths of rural America in some states, that it just ends up affecting so many schools and so many kids.

The staggering number of young people who have either been adopted or they’re in foster care or living with a family member because their biological parents are addicts or are in jail, the number of principals or teachers who recount the fact that they dread Mondays because so many of their kids may be staying with a family member who has some sort of addiction problem, and the teacher and principals have to worry about on Monday did our students spend some amount of their weekend worried about a parent who was unconscious, or maybe that parent got arrested. It’s these real-life stories of what the numbers of the opioid addiction crisis kind of tell us that just puts it in stark relief how staggering the human effects are.

Mike McShane: Yeah. I remember they used that term “opioid orphans,” and it was just a sort of shock to my system. For those that are able, there is a video. We did a conference at the American Enterprise Institute a few months ago where some initial versions of these papers were presented, and Clayton Hale, one of the co-authors of that piece, put a slide up that showed the lethal doses of these various opioids and how increasingly potent they’ve become. It starts with like a vial. I want to say maybe it started with heroin, and then one was oxycontin, and then that final one is that fentanyl that was just … these tiny little dots of it represented a lethal dose, and so it just brought that into stark relief. I totally agree with you, but I think you had another one that you wanted to add.

Andy Smarick: For sure, and I’ll give you two others, even though I could probably give you 20. One is the chapter that we had written on the politics of rural education, and what was so interesting about this is the history is in some ways overlapping with the history of urban schools, but a little bit different. It’s everything from how the progressives at the turn of the previous century weren’t just kind of butting into the business of city families and city school leaders, they also had a condescending view of what was happening in rural areas—those areas not being professional enough or too parochial. After a century of that, rural communities look at outsiders coming in, whether it’s the Race to the Top or No Child Left Behind or whatever else it might be, and these reformers telling rural communities how they’ve got to change their schools.

This isn’t the first time they’ve heard that song. It’s been going on generation after generation after generation, and there’s a history there that I think a lot of folks don’t recognize and that certainly plays into conversations around curriculum and standards and testing and funding. The politics of these places are mind-boggling, and I think if we’re going to try to affect policy in some way, especially given that a lot of the leaders in legislatures either come from these areas or represent parts of them, we just have to be cognizant of it if nothing else.

Then the chapter on rural charter schools that Juliet Squire wrote is just fascinating. There are hundreds of them. Most people don’t think of them when they think of charter schooling. They think of the big CMOs in cities or maybe some of the classical education schools that are popping up in some suburban areas, but there are hundreds of them. Some of even in the most remote rural areas, and why they come about and how they come about and what they mean for their communities, but also the schools they replace, what that means for the community. It’s very unlike the situation, the politics, the rationale, the implications, that we see in say New York City, which already has hundreds of charter school campuses and has over a million kids in the public school system to begin with.

One new charter school doesn’t make all that much difference. It’s a rounding error of a rounding error. That is not true if a brand-new school gets started in a very remote community in Oklahoma or in Idaho, or maybe even in New England. Those two cases, of the politics and even school choice, the fact that the policies and thinking that we have lands differently in rural communities in such stark ways, is something I think policymakers have to think a whole lot about. Like you think about the choice and charters all the time, did that Juliet Squire resonate with you the same way?

Mike McShane: Yeah, and I thought the opportunities that were there, so for some of these small communities, to turn to charter schooling to help save their schools, sometimes in the face of consolidation. One of the things that I think popped up in the politics chapter but also in the charters chapter was just how overstretched a lot of rural school superintendents, rural school leaders, think that they are, so they could be the head of a school district that is pre-k through 12. They are the person who gets called when the bus breaks down or when the basketball team needs to go somewhere, or the air conditioner doesn’t work or the ACT scores come out. Literally everything under the sun that affects their school, they are in charge of.

The idea, kind of harkening back to some of the initial rhetoric about charter schools, which was trying to free educators from bureaucratic red tape to allow them to meet the needs of kids as best they can, sort of unencumbered by some of these things, I think actually has a lot of potential for rural schools in the sense that they say, “Well, wait a second. Rather than having to liaise with the state department of education,” which is also oftentimes stretched, ” we could look to some kind of charter authorizer, whether it’s a state charter board or a university, that could maybe also provide some kind of reciprocal support for us.”

Just on that level, not to mention the fact that as lots of communities, as rural communities deplete of people and there’s risk of closing schools, again saying, “OK, fine. We might have to close as a traditional public school, but could we reopen or just convert to a charter school, so we can again streamline some of this stuff? The funding mechanism will be different. We might be able to get more state funding or change those types of relationships.”

I think that the implications for school choice in rural communities unfortunately … and I think we made a cognizant effort to not just immediately go to online schooling, which seemed to be all the time, just like, “Rural schools, online schooling? Oh, so you mean online schooling? I mean, obviously the solution is online schooling,” which I have nothing against sort of online schooling, where it works and can be used, but it’s not the be-all, end-all solution to everything going on in rural communities. That’s not to say that some of these other school choice mechanisms that we have are not applicable, but sort of as you said, landing the right way, with a rural flavor to them. So, I’m curious. Throughout this process, is there anything that you learned that surprised you?

Andy Smarick: Well, it’s probably the fact that the policies that have been pushed so hard and with the best of intentions for the past at least decade—we could probably go back 25 years—have been often pushed without really thoughtful, engaged discussions with as many rural leaders as necessary. Because of that, it’s just this awkward fit. As people say nowadays, if you bring the rural lens to this and you look at a charter school law or you look at teacher recruitment or retention policies, or if you think about school funding formulas, the way that those things land on rural communities are just so different.

It’s not that the people who crafted some of our policies or reformed policies were malicious in any way, but after doing the project, what really strikes me is, had those people grown up in rural areas or had they made sure that they weren’t just bringing an urban lens or suburban lens to these policies, they would have certainly been written differently and I’m positive that we would have talked about them differently. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to do this project, which is … OK, people were not doing bad stuff by doing this last generation of reforms. They had the best of intentions, and I know many of them care deeply about all kids who are living in poverty or who are underserved, but it is the case that some of these things just didn’t land as well as they could have.

Is it possible that we could write this book, have a conversation, so when the next wave of reforms come down the pipe, whether it’s CTE or early childhood or gifted education or who knows what it might be, that we have raised enough questions so we know the people who are in power know who to talk to, or know which type of things to at least consider? That’s like a policymaker in me, realizing that whether it’s a regulation, a statute, a funding formula, we’ve got to hit pause and make sure that it’s not just an urban lens, that it’s all of the millions and millions of kids and families who consider rural schools home.

Mike McShane: I think that’s right. I think there was this interesting theme of frustration that shows up in the volume. You know, it’s interesting. In school choice world, we tend to look at rural school superintendents as this incredibly powerful political block. For those that are trying to pass a school voucher law or charter laws and others, frequently rural school superintendents get together and say, “We don’t like this. It, at best, will have nothing for our schools. At worst, we think it might actively harm them, so we want to try and kill this bill.” There’s all this sort of rhetoric around, “Oh, in many cases rural school superintendents are the largest employers, so they have a lot of sway with their local legislators,” and so at least my thinking going into a lot of this was, oh, you have these kinds of all-powerful rural superintendents calling the shots in state capitals.

What was fascinating I found in the chapter about rural school politics is just how frustrated they are, because while yes, it may be true that they can flex some political muscle and kill things that they don’t like, they really struggle to work together to get things that they do like. I think it’s one of these classic problems of politics where everyone thinks that the people who are opposed to them have some brilliant plan, and they’re the ones that are running scared or disorganized. I think that happens actually in both sides of this conversation, because lots of rural school superintendents, in some of the data that Ashley and Sara bring to bear in their chapter, talk about kind of isolation, frustration, lack of support, lack of connection with others. They all kind of feel like they’re on an island.

Look, I empathize with them when someone from a city or a state capital says, “Look, we want to do this new bill. We want to dramatically change X, or we want to totally rethink Y,” and they say, “Look, we’re just trying to hold this district together. We’re trying to keep the school bus running on time and the kids going to the college, with all of these macro factors that are economic and social,” and as we talked about, the opioid crisis and others.

I think that particularly people from the school choice space but people from the education reform space as well, if they had a better understanding of who they were dealing with in a lot of these rural communities, and that they aren’t these kind of all-powerful political folks but they themselves have their own challenges, their own frustrations, I think there’s actually room for common ground, to say, “How can we help solve your problems,” or, “How could we rethink some of these things that solve problems that you all have?”

In some ways, what surprised me about it also gave me some hope, but part of that leads us to a question of if we were to think about a kind of rural education agenda … I don’t know if we want to say rural school reform, but maybe we’ll just say sort of rural school improvement. If you had to put together a couple planks of a rural education improvement agenda, what would show up on those?

Andy Smarick: Well, in no particular order, it would be general flexibility with funding, and I’ll get into that in just a second. A second would be an expansion of choice, but choice thought of differently. Not just brand-new schools, but enabling what you and I know as course choice but it’s called different things in different places, or thinking about scholarship tax credits or even online learning in different kinds of ways. Then thinking about funding formulas, including one of these chapters was about property taxes and the assessment of land related to trying to prioritize agricultural land and maintaining farms. Those three I think are good places to start.

The first one on just like funding flexibility, whether we’re talking about how to deal with school turnarounds, improve the persistently low-performing schools, or how to pay teachers both to recruit them, to retain them, to give them bonuses. These administrators just have fewer degrees of freedom when it comes to a lot of their operations, just because there are fewer people around and if you lose a teacher it can have effects, or you might have a small school and you don’t have economies of scale. Making sure that these school leaders, whether it’s district administrators or school administrators, are allowed to do the things necessary to run high-performance schools.

A good example might be collective bargaining agreements or union provisions. If you were in New York City or Boston or someplace that has a density of population, you might think that there are always enough teachers to be had and you have a long list of potential elementary school teachers, and so you can kind of treat them like widgets in your collective bargaining agreement. It might be the case in a rural area, where there are fewer prospective teachers because there’s just less population, that you have to do some creative things to recruit that French teacher or the high school physics teacher and to keep him or her in the building, so give them that kind of flexibility.

The second thing, the school choice part, is we know based on the data that was in the book that a lot of these schools have great high school graduation rates. They don’t have great college-going rates. They often have too few specialized programs. They have fewer AP programs available to them, so any kind of initiative to make different types of schools available, online learning, course choice, this ability to have different providers offering different types of classes within a traditional facility, I think is really promising.

The last one is just about funding formulas, and maybe this is just based on some of the thinking that I’ve been doing about other issues for the past couple years. As states, especially in the wake of all the teacher strikes over the past couple of years, they’re thinking differently or thinking anew about providing money, new money, into their funding formulas, are we going to make sure that when we talk about equity or fairness or adequacy, that there are actually the right people at the table to say, “My remote rural community in Appalachia, or along the Coast or on this Native American reservation, is getting the resources it needs to do its job?” In the past I don’t think that’s always been the case, but I would push for that for the future. What do you think? That was a long discursive statement for me.

Mike McShane: No, I appreciated all of those. I think you gave a lot of really good specifics there that I would definitely follow up on. I mean, James Shuls’ chapter spends a lot of time talking about funding formulas and just how much or how many other goals, desires, political constituencies, are satisfied by negotiations around school funding formulas, not what’s actually best for kids or what’s even best for schools. Lots of decisions around commercial property and agricultural property and all of those things. So, in some level, yeah, a level of honesty, and ideally some improvement saying, “The primary goal of our school funding formulas should be to provide the resources that are necessary so the kids get a quality education, not necessarily to satisfy all of these different constituencies.”

Two maybe kind of macro points that I think are worth making, and one is that, sort of to build on what you said earlier about trying to take some lessons from urban school reform that’s been going on in kind of fits and starts for the last two or three decades, one of the mistakes I think that urban education reformers made… And again, as you highlighted, progressive reformers of a hundred years ago made in rural communities is, really going in with what I think perhaps the sociologists call a deficit mindset, going into communities and saying, “Your communities are broken, your schools are broken, your families are broken,” and it’s hard not for people to extrapolate from that, “Oh, and the children are broken as well, and so these outsiders need to come in and sort of put your children back together and then your families back together and your communities back together.”

Lots of people that are in communities say like, “Look, we’re struggling, but lots of people are struggling” It’s sort of insulting. It’s washing over a lot of great history, a lot of great cultural capital, religion, all sorts of things that were there, sort of in the name of almighty progress. We can’t go back and redo that, as much as I wish that we were able to, but I think that that’s something. Definitely not walking into rural communities and saying, “Here’s everything that’s wrong with what you’re doing.”

Frankly, in a lot of cases I think that what we see today in rural schools provides a reasonably strong foundation for improvement. There are high levels of social trust between rural community members. I think there’s a great deal of pride in rural communities. People want their schools to be better, they want their institutions to be better, so going into those communities with that, saying, “Look, we share your goals, we share your desires, we want to build on the strengths of your community, not just try and sort of patch up your weaknesses.” I think that just anything, whether we’re talking about funding, whether we’re talking about teaching, whether we’re talking about any of those things, I think is really important.

The second kind of, I think, overarching piece we have to think about is what do we want out of our rural schools? What is the goal that we’re striving to? Because I think in the course of this volume, I don’t know if you came to sort of the same conclusion I did, but lots of different people and different communities envision different things.

There’s obviously a big push I think in the career and technical education world now to say, “Look, we have this skills gap. We’ve got lots of good-paying jobs that need some technical training. They don’t necessarily need kids to go to college. They’re available today. Let’s retool our schools to get people into these jobs,” which I think is fair enough and is obviously true on some level. I mean, I worry about that because I wonder, well, are those jobs going to be there in five or 10 years, are they going to change somewhere, so I think we can’t necessarily jump in with both feet. Maybe jump in with one foot and not necessarily both.

Then also, the whole kind of brain drain that happens in rural communities I think is actually a much more fraught conversation that we need to be more clear about. The idea that as cities continue to agglomerate economic power and social power and educational power, they draw people in from rural communities. If you’re a rural school leader, is your goal to try and prepare students so that they can thrive in these agglomerating cities? Is it to get them to stay in the community that they’re in and improve it and keep it going? Is it some combination of the two? Is it others? I think we don’t necessarily have those incredibly, incredibly value-laden conversations that we need to have, because it will shape the types of programs and the types of offerings that we have.

Just maybe one final point is that, you know, there’s an incredible chapter in the book by Sheneka Williams of the University of Georgia that talks strictly about the kind of African-American rural experience. Conceivably, if we had more pages to work with from our publisher, there’s a whole diversity of rural educational communities and rural environments that I think lots of people don’t necessarily have a good handle on. There could be more chapters that are written on rural Hispanic communities, rural Native American communities, and others spread all across our country.
I think another piece of that is just being clear in our minds that there is no one thing that are rural schools. They geographically vary, they demographically vary, their needs vary and others.

While we in the urban education reform world would paint all of the cities with the same brush—which again was probably wrong, like Philadelphia is not Baltimore, is not Washington D.C., is not Kansas City, is not Denver. They’re different from one another, but we sort of lump them all together. It’s especially bad to do in rural communities, where we do really see this big difference. Andy, it was wonderful chatting with you today, so thank you so much for joining EdChoice Chats.

Andy Smarick: Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure. I hope you and I get to work together on something again soon.

Mike McShane: That’s that on my conversation with Andy Smarick. As I said at the beginning of this, if you’re interested in the volume, check out No Longer Forgotten: The Triumphs and Struggles of Rural Education in America. You can find it on Amazon, Rowman & Littlefield, any number of other places.

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