Rural Georgia: $30 million in federal stimulus to improve student learning outcomes
By David Pendered
Georgia’s initiative for improving education in rural areas continues to take shape as policymakers evaluate Census figures showing ongoing population declines that challenge efforts to maintain rural communities.
The education platform is a recent addition to existing efforts to maintain the viability of rural Georgia by improving broadband connectivity and roads in those communities. Gov. Brian Kemp and House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) have spoken repeatedly about the importance of supporting rural Georgians as well as urban areas.
On July 28, the state’s Department of Education established the Office of Rural Education and Innovation. The cabinet-level office is to use funding for education provided by the American Rescue Plan to help the typically under-resourced rural school systems improve student outcomes.
Some school districts are in the sphere of metro Atlanta. Carrollton City Schools and the Douglas and Paulding county school districts received a total of $3.7 million for literacy programs for youths from birth through high school.
State School Superintendent Richard Woods has named a deputy superintendent to run the rural schools program, tapping a 31-year educator from Southwest Georgia who was serving as superintendent of Early County schools. In addition, the new office was named for a career South Georgia educator who served until his death in October on the state Board of Education, the David “Butch” Mosely Office of Rural Education and Innovation. Mosely was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to represent the 2nd Congressional District.
On Sept. 1, the State House Rural Development Council heard a report from David Tanner, of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, that illustrated how the dwindling number of residents in rural Georgia could be overlooked.
The state’s urban population grew by about 1 million in the past decade. The population increase and the impact it has on the state’s roads and other infrastructure occupy the attention of agencies from the departments of transportation, corrections and natural resources to the ATL, which is to enhance transit in metro Atlanta.
The state’s rural population grew by 27,580 during the same period, 2010 to 2020, according to Tanner’s report.
Tanner added this caveat: Rural Georgia’s population declined by almost 38,000 when the rural counties in North Georgia Mountains, metro Atlanta’s border counties and Bryan County are excluded. Bryan and Liberty counties are home to Fort Stewart, the largest Army installation east of the Mississippi.
Against this backdrop, Woods established the Office of Rural Education and Innovation as a cabinet-level program. The office is to direct stimulus money Georgia has received from the pandemic-relief program to devise, develop and implement programs. First-round funding of $30 million was approved Oct. 1 by the state Board of Education.
Literacy programs in 22 districts received a total of $18.3 million. Broadband initiatives in 43 districts received a total of $1.7 million. A total of $4.9 million was awarded to 57 districts to equip labs to teach career pathways in technical and agricultural fields.
The strategy behind the effort is to “address educational needs in rural Georgia including connectivity, teacher retention and recruitment, resources and funding and educator development.” Tactics are to be devised by Ragan-Martin and the team she assembles.
Kemp and Woods have endorsed the program.
“It is a top priority of my administration to strengthen and bring greater opportunities and economic prosperity to rural Georgia, The Georgia Department of Education’s new Office of Rural Education and Innovation will support those efforts to renew and revitalize rural Georgia and ensure our state remains the best place to live, work, and raise a family,” Kemp said in a July 28 statement.
Woods echoed this sentiment. “We are committed to supporting rural schools and districts and closing the opportunity gaps that often affect students in rural areas,” he said in an Oct. 1 statement. “These projects undertaken by the Office of Rural Education & Innovation, led by Deputy Superintendent Bronwyn Ragan-Martin, are a strong first step toward the goal of renewing rural Georgia and ensuring every child, in every part of the state, has access to opportunities that will prepare them for a bright future.”