Las Vegas Sun

August 18, 2022

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Guest column:

Rural schools left behind

As we face historic childhood poverty rates in Nevada, we must look to education as the most viable way out of this crisis that has gripped 22 percent of the state’s children and threatens to keep them trapped in the vicious cycle for generations.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate committee tasked with writing federal education laws, emphasized that in order to “prepare our children to compete in the global economy, we must ensure that every American child has access to a world-class education.” The committee made the first step in the right direction when it approved the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act of 2011, released on Oct. 19 by Sen. Harkin and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the committee’s top Republican.

While not perfect, and still a work in progress, the bill aims to rectify the inherent flaws of the current federal education law, which has neglected too many kids in rural America. Sure, the No Child Left Behind law of 2001 has injected long-needed accountability into our education system and invested in kids and schools that were not meeting standards. But for far too long, the playing field has been anything but level for financially struggling rural schools in Nevada.

One of the lessons we’ve learned over the past decade is that, like many other federal laws, No Child Left Behind was disproportionately geared toward the needs of suburban and urban kids. Our laws must recognize the unique challenges of children in rural schools in the state and across the country. Filling this void for the past four years, Save the Children has delivered much-needed support to academically lagging students and overextended teachers at struggling schools in the most remote parts of Nevada, such as Elko County, where the majority of children live in rural communities. Last year alone, my organization partnered with five schools in two counties, reaching 1,723 students through educational programs designed to help children overcome learning barriers and circumstantial obstacles that stand in the way of a brighter future.

The long-awaited reforms to No Child Left Behind reflect best practices that Save the Children’s education programs have demonstrated and proven successful. Revisions to the 21st Century Community Learning Center model, for example, reflect the critical need for in-school and extended school day interventions. The new Improve Literacy Instruction and Achievement program requires states to focus on early childhood education and would allocate considerable funding to improve literacy, specifically for children reading below grade level.

What’s more, the proposed reforms stand to make historic gains for the children in rural parts of our state. For the first time, the Investing in Innovation Fund that provides competitive grants for practices to improve student achievement would award 22 percent of annual funds specifically for low-income, rural schools. If this had been in place in 2009, more than $100 million could have gone to rural schools. In reality, very little — if any — went to rural-specific programs.

In this bill, teaching to the test would be replaced by a return to teaching to the child. Title 1 schools would no longer be measured by Annual Yearly Progress standards, which have frustrated educators in our schools by undermining successful local initiatives. Instead, our state would be required to develop new, rigorous assessments by 2015 to identify low-performing schools and generate action plans for improvement that would empower local schools to take into account the unique needs of their student bodies.

These revisions have opened the door for us to advocate aggressively to implement these measures in a way that would benefit rural schools. They would have a real impact in real classrooms that desperately need real investments.

Now, as the full Senate considers this bill, let’s urge lawmakers to set politics aside, make any needed changes and pass this important legislation as a long-overdue down payment on the future of our children in rural communities who have been left behind for far too long.

David Neff is the program specialist for Nevada for Save the Children, which operates literacy, physical activity and nutrition programs mostly in rural areas.

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