Rural Education Advisory Council Discusses Defining Rural in Illinois

The new Illinois Rural Education Advisory Council, created through the unanimous passage of Senate Bill 1787 last year, met for the second time to begin work on some of the most pressing issues facing rural and small schools across the state. The Council represents a critical opportunity for rural communities and schools to have representation at the highest levels of state discussions and decision making. For their second meeting, the councilors elected to venture into one of the toughest and most divisive issues impacting rural places: the definition of rural. Though laden with potential pitfalls and sticking points, the Council enjoyed a productive discussion guided by Council Chair and the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools President, Dr. Jennifer Garrison, Council Vice Chair and AIRSS Board member, Dr. Mark Twomney, and AIRSS Program Director, John Glasgow.

After calling the meeting to order and approving the minutes from their first ever meeting earlier this year, Dr. Garrison invited Glasgow to lead the Council through a presentation on differing definitions of rural. He shared that there are over two dozen different definitions of rural actively utilized by the federal government, and Illinois employs numerous definitions of its own. He shared that absent a unified, state definition, districts are often left unclear of their rural status and unable to compete equitably for resources and support with larger, more organized and defined groups and districts. He shared that while there are many well-known and worthwhile models to consider, employing the National Center for Education Statistics’ Locale Codes along with the US Office of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Rural Education Achievement Program’s eligibility criteria provides a strong start. Moreover, AIRSS itself uses these two sources of federal data in determining its own definition of rural in its advocacy and research.

He continued by explaining how a number of anomalous cases have cropped up through how AIRSS defines rural, including small towns near major urban areas, individual rural buildings in a larger district, and rural areas being reclassified as urban through new Census data. He argued that addressing these fringe cases would be the primary challenge in creating a state definition, but that it was not impossible. He concluded by offering a potential model using multiple, flexible categories that could help resolve many of these uncertainties.

Drs. Garrison and Twomney then led the council in questions and discussion of the materials presented. The Council was enlightened by the many different ways of defining rural and had several follow-up questions for Glasgow. Reflecting on the meeting, Dr. Garrison shares, “This was such a necessary conversation. For so long we’ve been fighting to ensure all rural and small schools are heard and seen. Today’s meeting was a great step forward in giving those schools even more representation by giving us all definition and community.”

After considering the presentation and following conversations, the Council settled on an initial set of criteria that would constitute a rural definition. From there, the Council agreed to forward their notes and recommendations to State Superintendent, Dr. Tony Sanders for review, and to consult with their local networks of rural schools and communities for feedback. The Council adjourned their second meeting having made landmark progress in tackling one of the more challenging questions regarding rural education, and providing a way forward in creating representation and equity of access for over 500 districts across Illinois with rural and small schools.

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