The Power of Place in Rural Schooling
Superintendents who embrace small-town politics may be well-positioned to impact legislation
BY SARA E. DAHILL-BROWN AND ASHLEY E. JOCHIM/School Administrator, October 2018

Sara Dahill-Brown (second from left) of Wake Forest University and Ashley Jochim (center), a senior researcher with the Center on Reinventing Public Education, sat on a panel on rural education at the American Enterprise Institute last December.
When Robert Ranells was hired as superintendent of the Wallace School District in rural northern Idaho, he was an experienced educator but also an outsider to the small, tight-knit community. He immediately recognized that to be successful as a leader, he needed to make strong connections.

During his first year overseeing the 500-student district, Ranells joined the chamber of commerce, the local Rotary Club and the Elks Lodge. These relationships led to an invitation to join the local community foundation. To better understand the local economy, he made multiple visits to the precious metal and mineral mines where most of his students’ parents worked. In addition to serving as superintendent, he took on the roles of high school football coach and bus driver.

Though aware of the economic precarity facing his community, given its reliance on mining, as well as the challenges presented by a declining population, Ranells speaks with fondness about the “greatness of small” and the close relationships he has been able to form with parents and students as well as community leaders. He expresses gratitude for the many ways community members in the five rural towns composing his district step up to support the schools.

Recognizing that some retired Wallace residents may not feel as invested in the school system as families with young children, Ranells opens the schools to the community to ensure they function as a resource benefitting everyone. He explains, “Our secondary school is used nearly every night for some community event. The people, the school is theirs, and they take pride in it.” In March 2018, despite a difficult budget climate in Idaho, renewed talks of district consolidation and a long-standing strike in one of the largest local mines, more than 60 percent of voters approved the local levy needed to maintain the schools’ funding and services. Ranells nonetheless worried publicly about the district’s future finances given how the current funding formula in Idaho treats rural districts and the reforms being considered by the state legislature.

Ranells’ experiences offer a portrait of both the joys and difficulties of rural school leadership in the 21st century.

Political Constraints
In many regards, the basic political infrastructure of rural school districts looks similar to that of urban districts. The school boards are democratically elected. Superintendents are hired by boards to oversee daily operations and manage the affairs. Teachers, parents and taxpayers negotiate over how to allocate resources and develop programs. Educators at the local level contest state and federal mandates and advocate for greater financial support. And just as reforms in urban school systems live and die on the back of politics, so do rural ones.

Despite the similarities, one might assume rural superintendents are well-positioned to escape the political conflicts that surround school reform in big cities and counties. Teachers’ unions are less formidable, school board members often are less ambitious, and interest groups mostly lack the strength, numbers and diversity found in urban and larger suburban communities.

But rural superintendents face their own set of political constraints. Energy and agricultural interests — or community dependence on a single industry like mining — may limit opportunities to make local tax investments in rural schools, sometimes pitting the superintendent against local businesses in school funding fights.

Rural superintendents also must wrestle with a unique brand of politics. What may be lacking in terms of organized forms of political mobilization often is made up by conflicts that extend into the personal realm, drawing in friends and neighbors, many of whom either work for the superintendent or send their children to schools in the district. Rural superintendents who want to press for change can quickly find out just how fraught such efforts can be. A recommendation to deny tenure to a struggling teacher, a proposal to implement a new curriculum or a discovery of fraud in the business office quickly can foment discontent in the community and between the board and superintendent.

Lofty Expectations
Because rural superintendents have fewer political allies to rely upon, these conflicts can result in boards overruling or even forcing out the superintendent. While urban superintendents may be able to weather such conflicts, rural superintendents struggle because the communities in which they operate are so tightly knit. As one rural superintendent told researchers Marilyn Tallerico and Joan Burstyn for their 1996 study in Educational Administration Quarterly: “You have to know who’s on your chess board, who the kings and queens are, and who the players are … . They’re not always the people who have been elected or appointed to any position. It’s the informal system [too].”

Moreover, rural superintendents are expected regularly to perform the same superhero functions as their peers in big cities, but they must attempt these feats with fewer resources, much-smaller central-office staffs and greater professional isolation. As another superintendent confessed in that same study: “You know, everybody always thinks the city school districts are so difficult to manage. But when you’re a superintendent in a small district and all by yourself, you have a lot of the same tasks. Not the numbers, of course, but the same tasks. ... And you do it all by yourself.” Another superintendent from the same study put it more poignantly: “I was working 15- to 17-hour days. ... All I was doing was oil tanks and asbestos. In a larger district, you could delegate [that stuff]. In a small district, you do it all.”

While urban superintendents can and do turn to state and federal policymakers for political cover in their negotiations over local policy, rural superintendents are rarely as well poised to leverage these distant authorities. Since the early 20th century, state and federal policymakers, who primarily operated beyond rural communities, have vacillated between ignoring the needs of rural areas and problematizing them as backwards and in need of modernization. As a result, rural communities tend to have a strong sense of identity that rests in opposition to efforts advanced from the outside.

Beyond Deficit Mindsets
While rural superintendents are asked to play many roles, negotiate many complex relationships and confront resource constraints, they are well situated both to lead within their communities and to exert influence at the state and federal levels on behalf of their communities.

At the local level, points of pride can function to bind people in rural communities. More than seven of 10 rural residents in the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2018 Survey of Rural America said they feel safe, believe their communities look out for one another and say they are good places to raise children. Seventy-six percent of rural parents questioned in the survey report that their children’s schools are high quality.

Rural schools stand out in terms of the connections fostered between schools and the larger community. Parental involvement and support for local schools is generally higher in rural places than it is in cities. And rural schools are central players in community life, with schools sometimes offering the only dedicated space for community gathering — whether at a Friday night football game or a local theatre performance. The personal relationships and smallness that add challenges to a rural superintendent’s job also can enhance opportunities for problem solving.

As a result, rural superintendents such as Ranells are uniquely poised to be coalition builders and to gather local support for reform-minded solutions to education. While urban superintendents must compete with a long cast of characters for attention and power, rural superintendents’ position affords them prestige and opportunities for influence.

Rural superintendents’ positions also can open up avenues to advocate for their communities, though it might not seem so at first glance. Many of the school reform battles of the last three decades (such as mayoral control, state takeovers, school choice and Common Core State Standards) have left rural districts untouched or have paid little attention to their specific challenges, such as internet connectivity, postsecondary outcomes, transportation funding and recruiting and retaining teachers with specialized skills.

Indeed, in our 2017 analysis of bills introduced in state legislatures, we found when searching the National Conference of State Legislatures’ education bill-tracking database just 71 bills among the thousands related to education between 2001 and 2016 explicitly focused on rural communities.

Yet rural school leaders have flexed their political muscles to slow, weaken or reverse a number of significant legislative proposals involving district consolidation, desegregation, statewide curricula and standards, and teacher collective bargaining. To this end, legislative bills affecting rural areas and small towns are more likely to pass than those favored by urban delegations.

Rural districts also have found success through collaborative networks that can function both to address shared capacity challenges and to help coordinate political advocacy. As Alan Greenblatt wrote recently in Governing, rural delegations “hit well above their weight in numerous states.”

A Promising Strategy
Rural school districts enroll 18 percent of K-12 public school students nationally and comprise 53 percent of all school districts in the United States during the 2013-14 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Yet their challenges and especially their strengths often have been ignored by those working in education. Rural schools offer fresh opportunities to understand public education, its politics and opportunities for superintendents to lead.

At a time when debates over public education have begun to break down in the face of ideological polarization, mutual incomprehension and contempt, rural education leadership can offer some critical lessons. Absent the political buffers provided by organized interests and state and local politicians, rural superintendents must navigate conflicts via their relationships with local stakeholders. These personal connections just might be the most powerful strategy for negotiating conflicts in urban and rural settings alike.

SARA DAHILL-BROWN is associate professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. Twitter: @_SaraDB. ASHLEY JOCHIM is senior research analyst with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington-Bothell.

Additional Resources
The authors suggest these informational resources relating to their topic.

»The Politics of K-12 Education in Small Rural School Districts: The Case of Idaho” by Samuel R. Sperry and Paul T. Hill, produced by the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho.

» “Rural Districts Band Together to Promote Innovation Across Schools” by Linda Jacobsen, Education Dive. May 16, 2017.

» “Rural Education in America: Challenges and Promise,” conference video and papers from December, 7, 2017 at the American Enterprise Institute. 

» “Uncovering the Productivity Promise of Rural Education,” edited by Betheny Gross and Ashley Jochim, produced by the Building State Capacity and Productivity Center at Edvance Research.