Disproportionate Representation at the State Level May Be Hurting Rural Communities

Postsecondary & Workforce

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    Recently, our colleagues Molly Sarubbi and Lauren Sisneros wrote about some of the challenges facing education in rural communities. From the availability of Advanced Placement courses or relevant career and technical education to the lack of broadband internet access, rural districts tend to offer fewer opportunities and resources because of the obstacles unique to rural areas. To close these gaps, state policymakers have begun to initiate discussions and policy proposals to address rural priorities. But realized policies remain few and far between. The answer to why these efforts fail may be a result of how rural communities are represented at the state level. 

    Using U.S. Census Bureau data, we examined the number of districts classified as rural compared with those classified as urban in each state and in Washington, D.C., and we found that only four states (Maine, Mississippi, Vermont and West Virginia) have a majority of upper legislative districts designated as rural. For lower legislative districts, just two states (Mississippi and West Virginia) have a majority designated as rural.

    While these numbers are stark, they are not necessarily shocking. For generations, Americans have been leaving rural areas to cluster in cities and metro areas. This trend of urbanization is projected to continue for the next few decades. As of July 2017, just over 46 million Americans live in non-metro counties, which means just 14 percent of the U.S. population is spread across 72 percent of land area.

    State legislative districts are constitutionally required to be drawn so that all districts are relatively equal in population. The trend of urbanization has left few states with a significant number of rural districts and thus a lack of rural representation at the state policymaking level. States like Mississippi and West Virginia are outliers. In Mississippi, 51.2 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and about 54 percent of both upper and lower legislative districts are considered rural. But in most other states, where populations are clustered in urban centers, rural policymakers are scarce.

    That said, rural issues are not limited to rural areas and constituents. Urban areas continue to be dependent on the support of rural communities for not only food supply, but also services like correctional facilities, landfills and certain types of manufacturing. So even though most states lack proportionate representation from rural communities, all policymakers and their constituents stand to benefit from developing more equitable policies for rural communities and students.

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    Assistant Director of the Solutions Network at Education Commission of the States | nholly@ecs.org

    As assistant director for the Solutions Network at Strong Start to Finish, Neal works with partner organizations to improve developmental education outcomes throughout the nation. Neal previously led postsecondary and workforce projects for Education Commission of the States and supported the needs of state-level postsecondary leadership. Neal believes in the power of state policy to create increased postsecondary and workforce success for low-income and underrepresented students.

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    Policy Researcher at Education Commission of the States | zperez@ecs.org

    As a policy analyst, Zeke tracks legislation related to statewide longitudinal data systems, school safety and postsecondary campus safety. He has been with Education Commission of the States since 2014. Zeke has a passion for local politics and enjoys following the varied policy approaches of city and state leaders.

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