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Statistical Analysis Report:

Characteristics of Small and Rural School Districts

May 1997

(NCES 97-529) Ordering information

Executive Summary


All public school districts in the country provide basic information to the Common Core of Data (CCD), whose files are maintained by the . This report makes use of CCD to examine the status of small rural school districts in 1993-94 and the processes of change in those districts over the period from 1986-87 to 1993-94.

Small rural districts constitute a major portion of the public elementary and secondary sector of education. In 1993-94, half of the 15,000 regular public school districts in America were rural, and the majority of these were small, averaging fewer than 100 students per high school grade and 25 students per elementary grade (figure 2.1 in the report). One-fourth of the districts in the nation were small and rural, and in the Midwest, South Central, and West, this proportion was more than one-third (table A2.3a). However, only one in every 40 students in the nation attended schools in small rural districts. The majority of small rural districts, like other districts, were unified (K-12) districts, but one-third were separate elementary or secondary districts (table A2.1).

Small rural districts are declining in numbers, however. Between 1986-87 and 1993-94, the number of regular public school districts in the nation decreased by 700, and 415 of these were small rural districts, whose enrollments were folded into adjacent districts (figure 2.8). This represented a net loss of 1 in 11 small rural districts in this period. Closures of small rural districts were most prevalent in the Midwest (figure 2.9); and most small rural district closures were elementary (K-8) districts (table A2.1). Contrasted with the declining numbers of districts, total enrollment increased slightly in small rural districts (figure 2.10). As a result, in small rural districts that were in existence all 8 years, the average enrollment grew by 9 percent between 1986-87 and 1993-94.

Schools in Small Rural Districts

In 1993-94, about 8,000 of the nation’s 84,000 public schools were located in small rural districts (figure 3.1). Most small rural elementary districts operated a single school, while small rural secondary and unified districts usually had 2 or 3 schools (figure 3.3). Rural schools are generally small. High schools in four-fifths of all rural districts had fewer than 100 students per grade (table 3.1). Some of the schools in small rural districts were very small: a fifth of the schools in small rural districts had fewer than one teacher per grade (figure 3.4), including 64 percent of the elementary schools (figure 3.5). There were relatively few intermediate schools and many combined (K-12) schools in these districts (figure 3.7). About a quarter of the schools serving primary grades offered prekindergarten, similar to findings in other types of districts (figure 3.8). Finally, relatively few small rural districts either offered ungraded instruction or operated alternative, vocational, or special education schools (figure 3.9).

Between 1986-87 and 1993-94, about 415 schools closed their doors as the small rural districts in which they operated closed, and 315 more were assimilated into consolidated districts. Even in small rural districts that continued to operate, there was a net closure of 92 schools. There was a tendency for small rural districts to add intermediate schools, but there was a net loss of separate elementary and high schools in these districts (figure 3.13). The number of schools in small rural districts enrolling prekindergarten students more than doubled during this period (figure 3.14), while the number offering ungraded instruction declined (figure 3.15).

Students in Small Rural Districts

In 1993-94, about 1,100,000 of the nation’s 43,200,000 public school students were enrolled in small rural districts. More of the students in small rural districts were either white or Native American than elsewhere, while fewer were Asian or African American (table 4.1). Few school-aged children in small or rural districts (1.3 percent) were reported as having limited English proficiency (figure 4.6); however, slightly more of the students in small rural districts than elsewhere were reported to have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to address special educational needs (11.5 percent) (figure 4.7). In the South and West, but not in other regions, relatively more of the children in small rural districts were living in poverty (table 4.8).

During the latter part of the period from 1986-87 to 1993-94, enrollments increased in small rural districts, although not as fast as elsewhere. Although percentages of minority enrollment increased by 10 percent overall (from 31 percent to 34 percent of all public school students), they remained virtually constant in small rural districts, at about 12 percent (table A4.1b). While the percentage of Native Americans in small rural districts grew, the percentages of Asians and African Americans in these districts declined (figure 4.11). Finally, from 1987-88 to 1993-94, there was a gradual increase in the proportion of students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in small rural districts, as well as in other types of districts (figure 4.12).

Revenue and Expenditures in Small Rural Districts

In the nation as a whole, there were no substantial discrepancies in per-pupil revenues and expenditures between small rural districts and other districts; however, revenues and expenditures were substantially lower in large rural districts. In 1992-93, revenue per pupil in small rural districts was about $6,200, and expenditures per pupil were about $6,000. This was about $200 to $400 more than in large nonrural districts (figures 5.1, 5.2). However, per-pupil revenue and expenditures were only about $5,200 in large rural districts. Per-pupil spending varied substantially between regions: most notably in the West, where small rural districts spent nearly $2,000 more per pupil more than other districts did (table 5.1).

Nearly half the revenue in small rural districts came, each, from local and state sources, with about 7 percent from the federal government (figure 5.5). In large rural districts, by comparison, a much smaller share came from local sources. About two-thirds of the current expenditures in small rural districts were for core instruction, slightly less than elsewhere (figure 5.6). Nevertheless, ratios of students to teachers were lowest in small rural districts, ranging from 12 in top quartile spending districts to 15 in bottom quartile spending districts (figure 5.9).

Adjusted for inflation, finance trends between 1989-90 and 1992-93 were minor, although there were a few patterns. The slightly greater spending in small rural districts, compared to other districts in 1992-93, was more noticeable than it was 3 years earlier (figure 5.11). In the South Central region, per-pupil revenues in small rural districts rose, but in the Northeast, per-pupil expenditures declined somewhat (table 5.3). In the nation as a whole, however, no substantial trends in per-pupil revenue or expenditures or in student/teacher ratios characterized small rural districts.

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