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To grow economy, rural schools must succeed

Date Published: 07/10/2013

Author: Dane Smith, President


That done-to-death phrase about all the kids being above average has been applied frequently, and sometimes ironically, to all Minnesota children.

But it’s important to note that its author, Garrison Keillor, actually applies it every week on his “A Prairie Home Companion” show only to Lake Wobegon, the mythical rural town somewhere in central Minnesota and deep in our historic consciousness.

As many Minnesotans head out to our beautiful lakes and woods and small towns for summer, it’s worth thinking about how important that “above-average’’ status was for rural Minnesota in the last century, and how the success of our rural students has been a wellspring of our general prosperity.

By World War II, Minnesota’s smart investments and prioritizing of education over many decades – including the innovative use of state income taxes to invest in good schools from border to border – were producing results.

A largely rural and ethnically diverse population, with many first- and second-generation immigrants from mostly poorer European areas, was beginning to thrive. Not coincidentally, Minnesota at the same time was earning a reputation for a highly educated and productive workforce.

In 1973, a Time magazine cover story headlined “The Good Life in Minnesota’’ attributed the state’s remarkable prosperity and progressive spirit to “a near-worship for education and a high civic tradition.” Fast-forward 40 years, through rapid growth of an urban-suburban-exurban “metroplex’’ that now extends from Rochester to St. Cloud and accounts for two-thirds of the state’s population.

Many smaller towns and communities have withered, as agribusiness and technology created fewer and larger farms, and the demand for labor declined in basic natural resource extraction industries. Now we have a rural Minnesota that’s too often an afterthought in setting policy priorities at the state Capitol and in mainstream media.

Compounding these trends, the recent Great Recession was particularly hard on some parts of rural Minnesota, producing unemployment rates that often equaled or exceeded those in the urban core.

Meanwhile, test scores and graduation rates have stagnated or declined in some rural districts. And most importantly, higher-education attainment lags for rural populations. Most economists and workforce experts now see higher-ed attainment and economic growth as inseparable imperatives.

The rather astounding good news is that rural Minnesota’s pulse is strong. Two recent reports, from the Blandin Foundation and from the Center for Rural Policy and Development (CRPD), suggest that rural residents are becoming both more optimistic about their future and yet also more concerned that education attainment and job opportunities keep pace with changing demographics.

Blandin’s regular “Rural Pulse’’ survey, published in May this year, reveals rising hopes and expectations, compared to a similar poll in 2009. Three in four rural Minnesotans believe their community is a vibrant place to live and work, and a similar portion feel a sense of ownership over the direction of their community. Almost 70 percent feel the quality of life will improve in the next five years, and 85 percent say they themselves are able to make an impact on that quality of life.

The CRPD report takes an important look at long-term demographic trends and projections for each of five regions outside the Twin Cities-Rochester-St. Cloud “Metroplex.’’

To no one’s surprise, the Metroplex population has grown almost 100 percent the last 50 years, while the Southwestern Cornbelt has declined almost 25 percent, and the population growth in regions labeled Up North, Northwest Valley, and Southeast River Valley have been flat, rising by less than 10 percent. Only in the Central Lakes rural region has population grown, about 25 percent, since 1960.

What really stands out is the growth in rural Minnesota in the non-white population, from close to 0 percent 50 years ago, to more than 10 percent in most regions and well over 20 percent in many rural counties. An influx of Latino and East African agribusiness workers is pushing the non-white enrollment percentages in some school districts to 30 and 40 percent. Native American populations tend to be the key non-white group in northern counties.

Despite the uptick in general optimism, the Blandin survey shows a high degree of concern among rural Minnesotans about both educational opportunities in general, and their community’s ability to welcome and educate people from different backgrounds.

Key finding: Rural residents were significantly more likely than urban respondents to say that their community is not welcoming to people of varying backgrounds, and that their community leadership is not reflective of the diversity in the community.

The CRPD maps show that the percentage of children living in poverty is relatively higher, more than 20 percent in some counties, all across the northern, western and southern counties, than it is in suburban areas, and about the same as the urban core of the Twin Cities.

The link between poverty and poor school performance and low attainment can be overcome, as our ancestors proved, but it remains one of the surest cause-and-effect sets in social science.

Commodity prices are on the rise, and so are land values in greater Minnesota. The state’s diverse manufacturing base in greater Minnesota shows signs of life and vitality, especially compared to other rural regions.

Recent studies at the University of Minnesota’s extension program suggest that rural Minnesota is experiencing urban-to-rural migration and a “brain gain,’’ reversing the “brain drain’’ from previous decades.

But in the long run, rural Minnesota can’t thrive and attract good new jobs unless all our kids, including eager young learners from low-income families, and from Native American, Latino and Asian and African families, do better and go further in school and life.

Rural communities will prosper in the long run to the extent that they tackle this challenge with an “everybody in’’ mentality that includes energetic collaboration between business owners, educators, governments, and religious and nonprofit leaders.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, July 11, 2013.

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