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Rural communities left behind in state education policy, researcher says

Brad Weaver

Michigan’s teacher shortage is affecting all parts of the state. However, rural communities experience unique difficulties with attracting and keeping teachers.

Tanner Delpier is the labor economist with the Michigan Education Association and helped write the report from Michigan State University. Rural schools often have issues hiring because they don’t have the amenities a prospective teacher might want like a thriving downtown or professional development closer to home, he said.

“It’s not that you need to make, you know, a whole set of policies now that are just for rural districts, right? That’s not exactly what we’re saying," Delpier said. "It’s just, the policies we make we ought to think through what they mean in rural places, urban places, and suburban places.”

For example, he says budgeting transportation is completely different to a rural area than a suburban one.

"The average non-rural district has about 137 kids a mile. But the average rural district has about eight kids per square mile," Delpier said. "If you’re going to pick them up in a bus, you gotta pay for a lot more gas.

On the other hand, the stretched resources for public schools in general means that there has to be give and take between different school districts, said Donald Wortruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards.

"As we look at how education is funded in Michigan, I think whether you're an urban, surburban, or rural school the resources need to be there for any of them," Wortruba said.

When rural communities are in need of dire funding, he said he gets calls from school boards but has nowhere to refer them.

"There's not a lot of grant money out there for rural districts," he said. "The federal government over time may throw a little bit there way, but it's just not substantial enough."

Both political parties in Michigan campaign on promises to fund schools better, but both Wortruba and Delpier said that they have their sights on where the voters are.

Charter schools, for example, have been supported by Republicans and the DeVos family. They lobbied for a bill to give students scholarships state money to attend private schools.

Even if this bill passed, Delpier said they wouldn't be any help to rural schools.

"The thing about (school choice policies) is that those kinds of proposal don't do anything for rural districts," he said. "They're just not useful for them."

Rural areas are not often addressed on both sides of the aisle, Delpier said. Yet, the establishment of the Department of Rural Development last year was a good step forward.

Ben Jodway is an intern, serving as a reporter for WCMU Public Media and the Pioneer in Big Rapids. He has covered Indigenous communities and political extremism in Michigan.