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Rural schools struggle with funding, teacher shortages

Enrollment may be declining and funding may be insufficient, but Brian Robinson believes there is no better place to educate children than in a rural school.

“We are fortunate to be in rural Missouri, with families who support our district,” says Robinson, who is superintendent of schools for Winston R-VI School District in Winston, Mo., and is on the board of the Association of Missouri rural education

“This is a great place for children to go to school. We want it to be the highlight of their day.”

Robinson says most rural schools are coping with declining enrollment, adding that it has gotten worse since the COVID-19 pandemic began three years ago. He says affordable housing is also an issue in his district, which is about 60 miles northeast of Kansas City.

Financing is a constant problem, says Robinson.

“If it weren’t for the support of the local community, we would be in a bad way,” he says. “State funding hasn’t increased in 18 years. The last time the funding formula was changed was in 2005, but it’s not just a rural school issue. I’ve been a superintendent for 18 years and this is the first year that transportation funding has been what it should be thanks to the federal government’s COVID funding.

The Robinson School District is also looking for teachers, a common refrain in many districts.

“It’s been a problem for rural schools for years, but now it’s an urban problem as well,” she says. “There simply aren’t enough teachers in the pipeline to fill the need. We have a couple of positions open for a couple of months with no applicants. There’s a lot of competition.”

Competition for funding increased in Iowa when the state legislature passed a law in January 2023 that allocates money for students to attend private schools.

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Under Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposed law, all public school students and thousands of private school students can now receive a $7,600 Education Savings Account to pay for tuition at a private school along with other expenses like tutoring. The program is expected to cost $107 million in its first year.

By 2027, the money will be open to all public and private school students, regardless of income, and is expected to cost $345 million.

The legislator also approved a 3% per pupil increase in the school funding formula.

“That’s half or less the rate of inflation,” Margaret Buckton says to supporters of rural Iowa schools. “If your membership is going down, you will get less money than before. And most of our private schools are in urban areas, although you see some in northwest and northeast Iowa.”

He says that along with teacher shortages, rural schools are dealing with things like bus driver shortages.

“We have several school superintendents who also drive buses,” says Buckton.

Cybersecurity and other much-needed technological improvements are also eroding rural school coffers.

“There are so many software systems you need now, and that expense includes training,” he says.

Buckton says work also needs to be done to make sure school funding formulas recognize poverty.

“In the southern part of the state, about 50 percent of students eat free or reduced lunches,” she says. “The state average is 41%. There is no poverty factor in our formula.

Buckton says the operational sharing incentive has been extended through 2034, helping schools that share superintendent positions.

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