David Hecker: Rural and urban kids face many of the same challenges

Public officials must address poverty, provide long-term school funding

October 1, 2021 5:18 am

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If you’re just passing through them, it may not look like rural and urban, including many surrounding suburbs, communities have much in common — and elected officials often pit urban and rural communities against each other in public policy fights. 

However, they actually have more in common than some would like us to believe, including a shared belief in the importance of educating our children. 

Rural communities face many of the same challenges we see in urban areas, and we cannot build a strong public education system without considering the needs of all communities. It’s the moral and ethical duty of all elected officials to tackle the systemic issues that hamper kids’ educational growth, ensure equitable funding for financially struggling districts, and work toward a future where every child across the state receives a quality education.

It is impossible to truly improve education outcomes across the board without considering the impact poverty has on kids’ ability to thrive in school. Rural and urban children in Michigan face abysmal poverty rates, at 17.9% and 25.6%, respectively, and many kids whose families struggle to meet their basic needs are much more likely to struggle in the classroom.

With proper support, schools in underserved areas could act as community hubs, with programs designed to meet the urgent outside-the-classroom needs that keep students in both rural and urban areas from thriving in school. But to make that possible, we need to adequately fund schools and create a system that distributes funds more equitably by taking into account the unique needs of marginalized students.

Communities throughout the state are also facing a teacher shortage that makes it difficult to provide for every student. It’s become tougher both for schools to recruit new educators and to retain the ones they already have. 

Low wages, inadequate resources, a lack of respect for educators’ voices, and the increased challenges posed by COVID-19 make it hard for even the most dedicated teachers to remain in the profession — and that’s not to mention would-be educators whose observation of these problems leads them to choose a different career path instead. 

With too few teachers, schools have to resort to large classroom sizes that increase educators’ workload and make it harder for students to get the individualized attention they need to thrive. And in extreme instances, like the recent situation at Eastpointe Middle School, schools may even need to temporarily shut down or go fully virtual due to insufficient staff.

In that same vein, as technology takes on an increasingly large role in education, whether by choice or our present public health circumstances, many students find themselves struggling to keep up due to a lack of reliable, affordable Internet access. 

It’s well known that rural communities often lack reliable Internet access, but the digital divide affects kids in every community. And our state’s infrastructure woes don’t end with Internet access. It’s also critical to the success of our schools to ensure school buildings are in good condition, water sources are safe and free of contamination, and kids across the state are able to learn in a safe and stable environment. 

Right now, our state is falling short — and COVID-19 has only made the problem worse.

Michigan schools have received an influx of COVID-19 relief money, but that funding won’t last forever. Schools desperately need long-term solutions and adequate funding that will continue beyond the pandemic.

Luckily, President Joe Biden has made affordable broadband service part of his American Jobs Plan, which will take important steps toward strengthening infrastructure everywhere. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has also taken decisive action on broadband access, forming the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office to address the issue, and worked tirelessly to secure the funding Michigan schools need. Their leadership is moving us in the right direction, but we have a lot of work to do.

Rural and urban communities are often pitted against each other in discussions of public policy, but these perceived divisions are counterproductive. 

All of us, regardless of where we live, care about our kids and want to set them up for success — and it’s imperative that families throughout the state unite to voice the many concerns rural and urban families have in common in our approach to public education. 

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David Hecker
David Hecker

David Hecker has served as president of AFT Michigan since 2001. Previously, he was secretary-treasurer of the state federation. A member of the AFT executive committee, Hecker was first elected as an AFT vice president in 2004.