By the Oregonian Editorial Board
September 27, 2015
At this point, there's nothing surprising about a report that shows a chasm in opportunity between residents in the Portland area and those in rural Oregon. But the annual data book produced by Children First for Oregon provides a bleak reminder of just how stark those differences are.
"Nearly 44 percent of children in the metro area live in a household with at least one parent who holds a bachelor's degree, compared to an average of only 27 percent for the rest of the state," the report notes, adding that the presence of at least one parent with a four-year degree is a significant indicator of student success. More than 90 percent of children living in poverty in Oregon are in a household where no parent has a bachelor's degree, according to the report, which was released Wednesday.
Minorities in the Portland area, with the exception of Asian-Americans, face educational challenges similar to those of rural residents. But at least there are jobs in the Portland area, with the challenge being to do a better job of preparing minority students for those positions. In rural Oregon, the task is twofold: creating more jobs and improving education and training opportunities.
Though little progress has been made on improving rural economies, with the exception of areas along the Columbia River, at least that topic has been the subject of much discussion. The plight of rural schools mostly stays in the shadows. A number of states have embraced initiatives specifically aimed at improving rural education, but efforts in Oregon are scattered and generally part of some larger federal or state program. For example, the Secure Rural Schools Act, which channels federal funding to timber-dependent counties in Oregon and elsewhere, sounds like a rural education program. But significant amounts of the money are designated for activities – search and rescue, for example – that have nothing to do with schools.
Oregon does direct additional funding to small schools, with most of that money going to rural communities. The Rural Schools Network helps rural schools in the state to connect and collaborate with each other. The state also is in the process of launching the Oregon Online Network, a rebranding of the Oregon Virtual School District. Enhanced online class offerings should be of particular value to small, rural schools where there are not enough students to support a teacher for some advanced classes and electives.
Probably the most successful effort direct at rural Oregon schools has been the Eastern Promise. In 2012, Eastern Oregon University joined with Blue Mountain Community College and Treasure Valley Community College to establish a program that seeks "build a college-going culture" in rural Eastern Oregon. The program among other things, expands access to dual-credit classes, provides training to help teachers become certified to teach advanced courses and asks students in fifth grade to sign a learning compact, which includes visits to college campuses and participation in a career choices class. Efforts are underway to create five similar programs to expand the concept to the rest of the state. Securing funding, of course, will be one of the key obstacles to overcome.
In concept, the Eastern Promise is similar to the Rural Innovative Schools Initiative in North Carolina, Indiana, Illinois, Mississippi and South Carolina. The programs seek to create a culture that makes college seem more attainable to students growing up in rural, economically depressed counties. It's vital that these types of programs continue to expand and thrive.
One approach to boosting rural schools that some states have pushed more aggressively than Oregon is scholarships aimed at high-performing students who are willing to commit to teaching in rural districts. A number of federal and private programs do offer scholarships or loan forgiveness to students who agree to teach in rural or high-needs schools. At the least, Oregon high schools and universities should do more to make students aware of these opportunities.
Rural schools in Oregon actually perform better than those in many parts of the country, according to rankings compiled by the Rural School and Community Trust. But that doesn't make the gap in college attendance compared with Portland area schools acceptable. If Oregon schools do a better job of educating rural students, at least they will have viable economic options somewhere even if rural Oregon continues to lag financially.