Rural America has economies based on industries like farming, fishing, mining, and logging. These jobs once required significant amounts of labor and are either declining or nonexistent job sources today. The hard truth is that there are very few reasons for people to build 21st-century jobs, like electronics manufacturing, in rural areas because they are remote and lack flexible infrastructure, investment, and tax bases. As in other rural areas, older workers with experience logging or working in pulp mills where I grew up have skills not easily transferable to other more modern jobs.
Working to improve the economies of these corners of the country is a worthwhile goal. But for the sake of rural children, we should never assume that rural redevelopment efforts will bring large-scale employment and should drive education policies, as Matt Richmond argued on this blog last week. The realistic assumption for the large bulk of the children in these areas should, instead, be that economic opportunities are better found elsewhere, and our education policies should follow.
Rather than wax nostalgic about rural America and pledge to keep kids on the farm, policymakers should acknowledge the costs of a culture of static rural unemployment and the benefits of educating rural kids to join the modern workforce where and how it is. Wishful thinking should not be a substitute for the hard truth: Most rural kids should learn that they will never get an education or a reasonable job if they are unwilling to leave home.
Second, educators should not wait for rural employment efforts to create jobs in farming, logging, fishing, mining, or other occupations that require nothing more than a high school diploma in existing, usually declining, small towns and rural areas. What curriculum can be developed to teach rural kids to join some undefined part of the American economy, with the only certainties being that it must be oriented toward keeping them in job-scarce areas where they live and cannot require any advanced education? Rural students should be educated to join the living and breathing 21st-century American economy that is operating in major cities of every state in the nation, from Anchorage to Miami.
Further, bemoaning a “brain drain” or trying to reverse it is wrongheaded. Migration is natural, normal, and helped build our country. Immigration to American job centers is part of what powers our economy, and migration can be the same. Rural students can be part of the strength of our economy, even if not in the places we were raised.
I’m not holding my breath for anyone to build a wind farm off the Strait of Juan de Fuca, bring biofuels to the Chimacum Valley, or set up a free trade zone on Marrowstone Island. No one should lie to rural kids that things like this are around the corner. Educators should prepare rural students to excel in the parts and places of the American economy that are actually working now.
Andrew Rowe, guest blogger, is a 1996 graduate of Chimacum High School in Chimacum, Wash. Rowe, a federal employee, is also a graduate of American University and Georgetown University Law Center. He lives with his wife and two children in Washington, D.C. Reach him via email or Twitter.