How do Special Education Programs Differ in Rural and Urban Schools?

Although state education standards dictate the direction of special education programs, there are significant differences in special education programs between rural and urban schools. Most of these differences stem from the higher difficulty in hiring qualified personnel. That is the top impediment to special needs education in rural schools according to a government report, although funding also plays a role in establishing differences in the programs.

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What is a Rural School?

Rural schools are classified by a number of variants, and the schools do not have to be in an agricultural setting to be deemed rural. The three main designations of the schools are suburban, urban and rural, with the student population for both suburban and rural schools at 1000 or lower. In fact, two-thirds of schools are classified as rural. Schools are a reflection of the communities where they exist; suburban schools typically have students from medium-to-high incomes while rural schools have many students from lower-income families. That is important because all states fund special education through a combination of state and local funding. If there is a higher income base in the local community, the school has more program and hiring options.

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Why Do Rural Schools Have Such Difficulty Hiring Qualified Personnel?

The short answer is that most qualified special needs teachers prefer to work in metropolitan or suburban districts. Rural schools respond to the dearth of applicants by lowering the hiring standards, sometimes accepting teachers with temporary certifications. When they do get qualified teachers, rural schools have greater difficulty keeping them. Young teachers often use the rural school settings to get experience before moving to the preferred metropolitan schools. In addition, less affluent districts cannot afford to pay top salaries to special needs teachers. That translates to a majority of the unserved special-needs children living in rural school districts.

How Does the Teacher Shortage Affect Special Education Programs in Rural Schools?

In metropolitan schools, where there are enough special needs teachers, students have consistent and competent services. The federal government has established guidelines for the programs and established the Individuals With Disabilities Act, which requires schools to provide services to a wide array of student needs including: behavioral,  developmental, and physical issues. The difference in special education programs between rural and urban schools is that there often are not enough personnel in the rural schools to meet the federal requirements and they must buy services from other districts or rely on aides to work with the children. While rural districts may be thought to be more stable and attentive to special needs students, the truth is that teacher attrition and lack of resources make staff-parent relationships more tenuous, according to a report from the Journal of Rural Education.

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The number of applicants to the special education programs at universities and colleges is dwindling. In addition, educational specialists predict shortages in occupational therapists and school psychologists to address needs of the special education student population. Because school psychologists often identify and assess needs and refer students for services, that could be disastrous for rural districts. The lack of ability to identify needs would increase the number of unserved special needs students and greater define the differences in special education programs between rural and urban schools.