To Be Really Rural: Contesting Rural Identity Through U.S. Education Policy Debates

Year: 2021

Author: Brecklin, Caitlin

Type of paper: Individual Paper

     What does it mean to be rural? Who belongs, and who is merely “pretending”? This paper examines these questions in one rural school district in the upper Midwestern United States. The school board of the focal district, which spans two communities and a county line, voted in 2019 to dissolve the district after being denied essential funding through a local ballot measure. What followed was a public debate in both formal and informal spaces as community members sought to convince the state-convened dissolution appeal board to either support or reject the order. Embedded in this debate were contested ideals of rurality and community, which were in turn connected to ongoing political tensions and discourses. This paper examines how understandings of rural identity and associated values linked to local and national political discourses were leveraged and contested within the controversy.      Researchers have identified place-based identity as central to politics in the Midwestern U.S., where farmland, suburbs, struggling industrial towns, and sprawling metropolises exist in uneasy relation to each other. Studies of rural politics in the region demonstrate the importance of place-based identity—as well as place-based resentment and mistrust, especially of urban areas—in shaping these largely conservative, often majority-white areas. However, insufficient attention has been paid to the place of public schools in rural politics or to the ways that rural identity might be implicated in educational policy.     Drawing on data from a larger qualitative examination of the controversy, this paper is grounded in socio-cultural approaches to the study of politics and policy, which emphasize the importance of context, culture, and subjectivity in policy processes and which direct attention to the ways multiple scales, motivations, values, and perceptions may be implicated in those processes. Data sources include community members’ public statements to the appeals board and in online spaces as well as semi-structured interviews, which first revealed the salience of rural identity to this educational controversy. Additional data sources, including news articles, local historical accounts, and policy documents were used to understand and contextualize the place of rural identity in this debate.      By examining the role of rural identity in this controversy, while linking it to local and national contexts and discourses, this paper contributes to multiple scholarly conversations. It is particularly relevant to the study of rural educational policy, the role of place-based identity in the politics of education, and of the complex relationships between small- and large-scale discourses and policies.