Nearly 20 percent of the country’s students are enrolled in rural schools, yet are not provided the same focus in national policy or research as students in urban and suburban school districts. “Out of the Loop,” a new report from the National School Boards Association’s (NSBA), Center for Public Education (CPE), finds that poverty, isolation and inequities are exacerbated for rural students by the lack of attention to the unique needs of this considerable student population.

While not equally distributed across the country, CPE’s analysis notes, approximately one-half of school districts, one-third of schools, and one-fifth of all students in the United States are in rural areas. Inadequate funding, lower literacy rates, and less access to advanced courses such as AP and STEM classes impact rural students’ achievement, creating significant barriers to their success.

“The unfortunate reality is that there are academic and digital disparities in rural districts and students’ access to robust opportunities therefore can vary widely,” said NSBA Executive Director and CEO Thomas J. Gentzel. “Policymakers have a real opportunity to help level the playing field for rural students, however it’s going to require thoughtful solutions that are tailored to the unique conditions of specific communities.”

In its study of rural students CPE found that:

  • Child poverty runs higher in rural counties. Approximately 64 percent of rural counties experience high child poverty rates, compared to 47 percent of urban counties. Further, rural children are more likely to experience extreme and generational poverty.
  • Access to rigorous and advanced coursework is limited. Rural schools on average offer half as many advanced math courses as their urban counterparts.
  • Although rural students are more likely to obtain a high school diploma than urban students, they are significantly less likely to attend college or earn a degree.

CPE also points out significant hurdles faced by rural districts and schools:

  • Hiring and retaining qualified educators is particularly difficult, especially in STEM positions.
  • Inadequate funding is a constant challenge. Funding is typically tied to the size of the student population, creating severe operational challenges for districts with smaller student pools. Also, transportation costs can be extensive in counties where students need to be bused long distances.
  • Internet access and virtual learning are a challenge as both rural students and their schools contend with slow or no internet connectivity.

“Rural schools face many of the same challenges as their urban counterparts – high poverty and inadequate resources among them,” said Patte Barth, Director of the Center for Public Education. “Yet as our report shows, the proposed solutions for metropolitan settings, such as school choice and extended time in school, don’t necessarily serve the unique circumstances of less-populated communities. Clearly, the nation needs a specific focus on policies and practices that will improve outcomes for the one-fifth of its children who attend rural schools.”

“Every student deserves the opportunity to receive an education that prepares them for future success, whether they live in an urban, suburban, or rural community,” said Gentzel. “This means recognizing the unique challenges facing rural districts and confronting them head on with actions aligned with the research.”

Read “Out of the Loop,” by the Center for Public Education at

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