CASA GRANDE – The Obama administration is committed to improving the performance of rural schools, the U.S. secretary of education said Oct. 19.
“There is significant underinvestment in rural communities, and we would like to right that balance,” Arne Duncan told educators from eight counties.
The forum, held at an elementary school, was designed to help the administration develop its strategy for the nation’s rural schools. U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick organized the event.
Duncan said one of his top priorities is reducing the high dropout rate by creating incentives for school districts. He said the administration plans to offer programs that motivate students to stay in school, adding that officials plan to start those programs earlier.
“You can have the best third-grade test scores in the world, but if kids are not graduating you’re not changing lives,” Duncan said.
Tim Carter, Yavapai County’s schools superintendent, said a lack of broadband Internet access and classroom technology hamper efforts there.
“There are 27 school districts and 89 campuses, and no two sites are able to distribute instruction from site to site,” Carter said.
Duncan said that access to technology has been a recurring theme across the nation.
“Having kids use technology engages them and motivates them,” Duncan said. “The best educator isn’t teacher or technology, it’s a combination of the two.”
Cecilia Owen, superintendent of schools for Coconino County, said that Arizona is second to last in the nation for federal funding for students with disabilities.
Duncan said that the federal government is doubling the funding for Arizona’s special-needs children to $393 million.
Overall, the Obama administration is committing billions of additional dollars to early childhood education, Duncan said.
“There’s an unprecedented investment in education,” he said. “We will do all we can to sustain it by demonstrating the difference this makes in students’ lives.”
Frank Davidson, superintendent of the Casa Grande Elementary School District, said a lack of qualified teachers hampers rural schools.
“Once Arizona recovers from this recession we will have a difficult time filling teaching positions,” he said.
Duncan said the government is trying to help through a program that forgives a portion of federal student loans for those who work in the public sector, including teachers.
Pauline M. Begay, superintendent of schools for Apache County, said that schools on reservation land are struggling because teachers are having difficulty passing the state’s teaching certification requirements.
“They are qualified teachers but not certified,” Begay said. “Teachers from out of state don’t stay, so to retain we need programs to help teachers pass those tests.”
Duncan said he would keep her concerns in mind.
Kirkpatrick said the event was an excellent opportunity for educators.
“This is an administration that believes in education investment,” she said.