When politicians come up with new policies for America's schools, leaders usually make changes in large school districts like Chicago's, not considering effects on smaller districts like Bozeman's or Montana's one-room schoolhouses.
To bring the concerns of small schools to the attention of national education leaders, Bozeman School Superintendent Kirk Miller traveled to Washington this month to urge Congress to create a new Office of Rural Education Policy within the U.S. Department of Education.
Congress is busy trying to cut budgets, not expand them. However, Miller said the bill proposed by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to create the rural education office wouldn't cost any more money. It would require the Education Department to use existing resources to create a rural office to advise the education secretary. Miller said he expects it would be a small office with just a few people.
Senate bill 946 already has 17 senators signed on as cosponsors.
The number of students attending rural schools has actually grown in the last few years, increasing 17 percent to more than 21 million, as more families leave large cities, Miller said. By federal definitions, Bozeman's 5,200-student school district would be considered rural.
Miller told the Bozeman School Board this week that he traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend this month's American Association of School Administrators' Advocacy Conference. He went as federal relations coordinator for the School Administrators of Montana, which paid for his trip.
Miller was also invited by Baucus to speak at a briefing for about 50 Senate staffers and national groups representing parents, principals, community colleges and other education organizations.
A similar Office of Rural Health, created 21 years ago within the Department of Health and Human Services, has accomplished a lot of good things to improve health care in rural areas, Miller said.
As examples of the lack of federal attention to rural school concerns, Miller said rural states have not received any of the Obama administration's Race to the Top million-dollar grants for education reform. In addition, he said, policymakers who see school choice as an education solution don't realize that rural areas don't have enough population to support competing charter schools.
"The charter movement may apply elsewhere - not here," Miller said.
Miller was one of a handful of Montana education leaders who got to meet in Baucus' office this spring with Education Secretary Arne Duncan to talk face-to-face about their concerns. Duncan, who used to be in charge of schools in Chicago, urged them to keep bringing Montana's and rural views in front of him. Creating the rural office would do just that, Miller said.
Baucus' office reported the bill has been referred to the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, and Baucus hopes to get the Office of Rural Education Policy included when Congress gets around to rewriting the federal education law, now known as No Child Left Behind. However, the committee has not yet set a date for taking up that huge education bill.
A 2004 Government Accounting Office report found that, "Rural districts faced some challenges in meeting (No Child Left Behind) provisions to a greater extent than non-rural districts."
Groups supporting Baucus' bill include the American Farm Bureau, Center for Rural Affairs, National Association of Development Organizations and National Farmers Union.
Gail Schontzler can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2633.