New office would give rural schools a voice

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A Montana lawmaker introduced legislation that could give the state’s small schools a louder voice at the federal level.

Democratic Sen. Max Baucus has introduced a bill that would create an Office of Rural Education Policy within the federal Department of Education.

The purpose, according to Kathy Weber, Baucus’ press secretary, is to create a “one-stop shop” for rural schools.

The office would be headed by a director, “one person who could ... advise the [secretary] of education on all facets of rural schools, like small enrollments, the challenges of recruiting and the challenges of limited access to advanced courses,” Weber said. “It would give rural schools a voice.”

Montana educators know all too well that schools in this state operate differently than schools in large urban areas.

Most Montana schools are classified as “rural” by federal standards, and more than half the state’s schools have fewer than 100 students, according to the Office of Public Instruction.

“Our issues are just different,” Kila School Principal Renee Boisseau said. “My issues are different than an urban school even as close as Seattle downtown.”

In small schools, teachers and administrators often play multiple roles. It’s not uncommon for principals to serve as part-time janitors, maintenance workers and plumbers in addition to their administrative and disciplinary duties.

In recent years, federal mandates such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — more often called No Child Left Behind — have added to rural principals’ already crowded plates. Those mandates include hours of paperwork that detract from administrators’ other duties.

“The paperwork is overwhelming and a lot of it’s redundant,” Boisseau said.

“If you’re working on that, you’re not in your classrooms doing walk-throughs or working with kids. You’re tied to the desk trying to make sure you meet deadlines and make sure every T is crossed and every I dotted.”

Hurrying through the paperwork isn’t an option, she added.

“It’s tied to money, and ... if you don’t do it right or make some slight error, you’re afraid that it’s going to somehow reduce your funding, which may or may not be the case,” she said.

Dave Puyear, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association, said that paperwork is “killing our schools.”

“We don’t have the time for this stuff. We ought to be teaching children,” he said.

Puyear, whose organization is supporting the legislation, said he was excited about the idea of having an ombudsman and advocate for rural schools in Washington, D.C., where many educators and politicians are unfamiliar with school systems outside an urban setting.

“They don’t get it. They don’t even know what you’re talking about. You cannot possibly explain our schools to them,” Puyear said.

“That’s what I see this office doing, sparking that kind of discussion.”

Puyear said he anticipated the office could save the nation money by helping prevent one-size-fits-all mandates.

He is especially outspoken about No Child Left Behind, the federal legislation that has said all American students must meet certain standards in math and reading by 2014. Puyear called the law a “debacle” and said he hoped a rural schools office could help prevent similar mandates in the future.

“I never said No Child Left Behind might not work for Detroit or one of those larger schools ... but I don’t think many of those federal mandates are well designed for us, for rural states,” he said.

Weber said the new office could have financial benefits outside the education budget. Strong schools are especially important in rural areas, she said. “If they start to suffer, so will economic development.”

According to a statement from Baucus’ office, the rural education office wouldn’t require additional taxpayer money for funding; rather, the office would be staffed and paid for by existing education department dollars.

“The goal here is to allow rural schools to focus on students in the classroom rather than red tape in the bureaucracy,” Baucus said in the statement. “Our ability to keep and create good-paying jobs in Montana hinges upon a commitment to education in general, but especially a commitment to standing up for our rural schools.”

Boisseau said that in addition to drawing attention to some of the challenges small schools face, she hoped the Office of Rural Education Policy could highlight some of the schools’ achievements.

“Maybe some of the larger schools and urban schools could look at the way rural schools are working with students. Maybe there are things that are coming out of the rural aspect” that could benefit educators in cities, she said.

She would like to be part of making the office a reality, she added.

Before that happens, Congress and the president will have to approve the bill, which is co-sponsored by Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.; Mark Begich, D-Alaska; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; Al Franken, D-Minn.; Tim Johnson, D-S.D.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Bernie Sanders, D-Vt.; and Mark Udall, D-Colo.

Puyear praised Baucus for introducing the bill, which he said is “long overdue.”

“What could it possibly hurt to have somebody there trying to speak for rural America?” Puyear asked.

Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or at kalbertson@dailyinterlake.com.

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