Rural Georgia students face far greater outside barriers to academic success, including rates of asthma that are 2 to 3 times greater than the state average and dental pain 3 to 4 times greater. They also have unidentified language skill deficits at 2 to 3 times the average.

How do we create a better future for rural Georgia and its kids? 

A forum today on economic and education trends  painted a bleak picture of the prospects ahead for rural Georgia

One in four Georgia students attends a rural school. Their career prospects in their own communities are not promising, according to data and trends outlined by education advocates and economic forecasters at a Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education event.

Among the discussion points:

Rural Georgia students face far greater outside barriers to academic success, including rates of asthma that are 2 to 3 times greater than the state average and dental pain 3 to 4 times greater. They also have unidentified language skill deficits at 2 to 3 times the average. 

Poverty has an oversized footprint in rural Georgia, which was hit hard by both the recession and by the 2018 hurricane that caused $2.5 billion in losses to state farmers.

Georgia is seeing robust economic growth, but that growth is bypassing rural Georgia and occurring largely in metro Atlanta and other hubs. If you want to see just how pronounced job declines have been in rural Georgia, check out this new map. That sea of red is lost jobs, and it’s bleeding red throughout South Georgia. The fields of green, blossoming all around metro Atlanta, represent new jobs.

The future belongs to Georgians who hold some sort of academic credential or degree beyond high school; only 25 percent of people in rural Georgia have such a credential.

While 70% of students statewide take the ACT and SAT, only 41% of rural Georgia students take the college admissions tests. While the average pass rate on AP exams for the state is 23%, it’s 12% for rural test takers. 

Rural students graduate high school at slightly higher rates than peers around the state. And the majority attend some sort of postsecondary schooling, but most do not finish. Cost is a factor in why they discontinue their schooling.

The forces undermining rural communities go well beyond the reach of schools. It will require a coordinated and ongoing commitment and effort by state government, K-12 and higher education, social services and industry to reverse the fortunes of decimated rural counties. The decline of rural America reflects failed policy and indifference across many fronts.

Stephen Pruitt, president of Southern Regional Education Board and former education commissioner in Kentucky, discussed the future for 1.5 million Georgians without degrees now working in jobs susceptible to automation. Those workers will find themselves unemployed or unemployable by 2030, he said. 

After agriculture, the top industries in rural Georgia are manufacturing, retail and health care. Many of those jobs could fall prey to automation in the next decade, said Pruitt.

The Legislature is full of rural lawmakers, yet rural kids get short shrift. For example, another push for vouchers in the guise of education savings accounts is likely this session.

Despite the insistence of voucher proponents there is no adverse financial impact on public education when kids use vouchers to attend private schools, that’s false, said Stephen Owens, a senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. Owens focuses on state polices and research that affect public K-12 education.

Rural Georgia districts rely far more on state funding than high-wealth districts in metro Atlanta. “If they lose three students and the state funding that goes with them, they can’t cut three seats off a school bus. They can’t fire one-seventh of a teacher, and they can’t turn down the heat three students worth,” said Owens. “There are so many fixed costs.” 

Rural Georgia nets no benefit from a voucher program, said Owens in an interview after the forum. Even if parents could supplement the voucher and afford private school tuition, many families lack any private school options.

“It could require driving 40 miles to the nearest private school. Vouchers are just not a viable solution for the vast majority of the state geographically,” said Owens.

Rural legislators ought to also pay attention to efforts this session to rein in the rising costs of dual enrollment; their students make greater use of the program than the five-county metro area, said Owens.

Metro districts have more AP courses, and some schools offer the rigorous International Baccalaureate diploma program. That array of high-quality choices in their own schools may be why only 1 in 20 students in the five-county metro area participate in dual enrollment.

In rural Georgia, 1 in 5 students participate in dual enrollments, and rates are highest at the schools with the fewest AP offerings. Only 29% of rural students have access to an AP class, said Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber, adding, “Dual enrollment becomes their AP class.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.