rural areas are depopulating

In the United States, rural areas are depopulating and school becomes a mirage

Rural areas are depopulating

The Lawsuit in North Carolina

Small towns and inland states are having increasing difficulties guaranteeing adequate education. A problem that concerns millions of children and seems to have no solution. And so the divide with the capitals continues to widen.

“We live in a city with few people and almost no one is rich. Does that seem like a sufficient reason for my son not to have the right to a decent education?” This was the rhetorical question asked by Kathleen Leandro, a mother of two, who in 1994, when she sued North Carolina, were teenagers dealing with school, perfectly capturing the portrait of Rural America which, as it depopulates, severs its own lifelines and completely forgets those left behind.

At the base of the lawsuit filed by Leandro was the fact that, in her view, North Carolina did not guarantee an acceptable education to her two children, and generally to the residents of rural communities in the state. At the time Leandro managed to involve a dozen other families from counties that, like hers, could not get their schools to function, despite, and here is one of the strangest paradoxes of the whole affair, local taxation being among the highest.

In 1997, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, recognizing that “The North Carolina Constitution guarantees that every child in this State has the opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools” and that, on the contrary, the State was not acting as such. It seemed done, but it was not, because North Carolina, which is still eleventh in the ranking of states with the highest GDP, has never implemented the memoranda to improve the condition of rural school communities. On the contrary.

The Cycle of Decline in Rural America

To tell the whole story, the case is still open because in 2019, a report prepared by the WestEd research institute found that “many children are not receiving a solid, basic education.” Since then, the local North Carolina court has twice ordered the state to implement a seven-point plan to remedy the shortcomings of rural schools.

The problem of inadequate schools in rural communities in America does not only concern North Carolina, but dozens of states, and it is an old affair (dating roughly to the second half of the last century) but, after the 2008 crisis, it has vertically worsened, because concurring factors have exacerbated it, cause and effect of one another:

on the one hand, cities have become more attractive, because jobs and better opportunities were found among skyscrapers; on the other, the countryside, also due to the climate, has become less and less livable and populated, because the progressive decrease in inhabitants has brought with it a decrease in services and jobs and, conversely, an increase in taxes, because the cost of services, even minimal, is divided by an ever smaller number of people. So whoever can, leaves as soon as possible. And the cycle begins again.

By the Numbers: Rural Education in the US

The inevitable victims of this progressive impoverishment of rural areas are children and young students, the children of those who do not want or, more frequently, cannot leave.

The numbers are significant because today around 97% of the area of the United States consists of rural areas and houses around half of school districts, a third of schools and one fifth of students in the United States. This means that 9.3 million children attend a rural school, which means schools often with old and even dilapidated buildings, without Internet access and that have not been able, if not thanks to individual teachers connecting from home, to face the months of distance learning, but also without textbooks, because their libraries have volumes so obsolete as not to cover the entire program required by national or university admission tests and, above all, schools lacking teachers.

The Worst Plague: Teacher Shortages

This is perhaps the worst plague of all, because in turn it generates others. The reason is this: in the United States each school district, based on its means, decides the pay of its teachers. This means that while in some schools in states like Delaware, Massachusetts, California or New York, teacher salaries can approach $100,000 a year, in others, such as Montana, Alabama or North Carolina, they will hardly reach $45,000 a year.

For this reason no teacher who has the possibility to choose wants to teach in schools of poor districts. The only ones willing to do so are those who have not been able to get jobs in other, more remunerative schools. A sort of reverse natural selection that ensures that teachers either do not exist (Colorado has indicated its teacher shortage at around 3,000) or, when they do, are poorly qualified or eager to leave, leaving classes in the hands of substitutes or less prepared colleagues.

Failed Attempts to Grow Local Teachers

One way devised to address the teacher shortage issue has been the Grow Your Own program launched by some states such as Alabama, Colorado, Minnesota or Missouri. Essentially it is an employment plan that involves rural community students who graduate and choose to become teachers in their hometowns receiving a scholarship and then, once back home, having a guaranteed job.

In theory, the idea makes sense. But in practice it does not work because, as the New York Times notes, “For a district to grow its own teachers, it must produce enough graduates to fill its vacant positions. And rural students almost never make it to college.” Additionally, the few who do rarely want to return to the tiny town they have just managed to escape from, often with difficulty.

A Divided America: Urban vs. Rural

So today, America appears a divided place into what the Washington Post, with a sports metaphor, has called two teams: in one play the coasts and major cities, in the other the depopulated, poor, forgotten countryside, whose best players as soon as possible switch to the city team inexorably condemning the countryside team to defeat.

To solve the problem, it would take starting from the foundations, that is, schools. But schools cannot survive and be financed if jobs and income are not created. And jobs cannot be created in places where there are no schools.

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