The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, led by executive director Kyle Kopko, is a bipartisan, bicameral legislative agency that serves as a resource for rural policy for everything from agriculture and economic development to transportation and education. City & State spoke with Kopko for our special report on education to get a firsthand look into the issues rural school districts face and what Harrisburg lawmakers – now tasked with reforming the state’s education funding system – can do before the chickens of past disinvestment come to roost.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How can declining population projections affect rural school districts?
I can't overstate the importance of this issue … Because there are fewer students, there's going to be a smaller workforce going forward, unless we find ways of recruiting individuals from other states or other parts of the world to come to Pennsylvania. The best way to do so is to attract new residents to Pennsylvania in the short term. That is obviously a very complicated issue because some communities are growing – they might not need additional individuals there – and some just might not have the capacity. It’s very complicated to get into those types of conversations.
Teacher recruitment and retention is also a major issue throughout the state. How would more state funding make a difference?
We have a workforce pipeline issue in general. What we were just talking about in terms of your students coming through, we have fewer workers coming through, which means that there's just more competition for labor across all different types of sectors. That has exacerbated the search for teachers. Some school districts are able to pay more than other school districts and, just generally speaking, rural school districts have a harder time matching the offers from more well-resourced school districts, which are typically in the suburbs. That, too, has placed a strain on rural school districts.
What have you heard about funding issues and how they relate to charter and cybercharter schools?
Charters are another way that resources are being diverted from school districts. There are obviously a lot of different policy perspectives on charter schools, and cyber schools in particular, and how they can be used to meet student learning needs. But at the end of the day, whenever someone enrolls in one of these charter schools, a portion of the home school's budget is going with that student to that new institution.
Superintendents have to – as best they can – try to anticipate that and understand what that means for their yearly budgets. That can be a difficult proposition because of how the funding formula operates and anticipating how many students or families might choose that option. So there's unpredictability, which also causes some problems just for long-term planning and budgeting.
Broadband accessibility is also important in education. Can you talk about the impacts that underserved areas experience and what’s being done to connect more residents to high-speed internet?
The Broadband Development Authority is going to have some additional grant funds coming online later this year, particularly for anchor institutions and schools that fall into that group, to make sure that they have adequate service. If students themselves lack that access to high-speed broadband at home, that's going to be a significant barrier for learning – in how to be competitive, how to understand technology – and it's something that we are greatly concerned about.
And that raises a whole host of issues not just in terms of whether the infrastructure is there: Is the internet connection affordable, does the family and student know how to use it, do they have access to the appropriate devices so they can actually get online? The infrastructure and actually building it is just one component. If digital literacy, equity and affordability aren't also at just the right levels for these families across Pennsylvania, that's going to still be a barrier to access at the end of the day.
What’s being done at the local level to better connect students and residents as federal broadband dollars are still a little ways away from being distributed?
There are steps underway right now with the first $200 million that is underway for the broadband authority grants from the Capital Projects Fund. The results of that application process will be announced in the next year.
All that said, the issue is still going to take time to resolve. I mean, this is a grant process. We need to make sure that the proposed projects are viable, and that everyone has the technical expertise to engage in them, so it's not an overnight process by any means. One of the other positive aspects is folks who have learned about the Affordable Connectivity Program have been able to take advantage of that $30 a month so that you get access to the internet at a greatly reduced price. I will also say there are a lot of people that don't know about that program. Individuals may not realize it exists, they may not understand how to apply for it or how they might qualify even if they do apply. Since this is a federal program, there are questions about whether or not it will be funded going forward, despite its value.
How important is it for the Department of Education and lawmakers to really connect with each school district to understand their problems individually?
In my experience, I’ve found that school officials, superintendents and school board members are very willing to have conversations and try to do what's best for their students, totroubleshoot and brainstorm possibilities.
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