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Contemporary Federal Education Policy and Rural Schools: A Critical Policy Analysis

Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 2

Jerry Johnson, University of West Florida
Craig B. Howley, WordFarmers Associates


This article focuses on contemporary federal education policy as it manifests in rural schools. Rural schools differ appreciably from nonrural schools in terms of organizational systems, structures, and culture. Federal policies that drive school improvement initiatives (e.g., those regulating the functioning of schools and those managing the distribution of resources to schools) are often not attentive to such differences, adopting one-size-fits-all approaches resulting in policy contexts that are ineffective and even harmful to rural schools and communities. The few national policies explicitly designed for rural schools, moreover, generally fail to engage the state and regional variations that characterize rural schools, resulting in seemingly unpredictable results that often work against the announced policy goals. This article considers three major educational policies of the post–No Child Left Behind era: the Race to the Top grant program, the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, and the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP). Along with describing these programs and analyzing the impact of their implementation in rural settings, the article also offers perspectives on how to level the playing field for rural schools and communities.


Jerry Johnson chairs the Department of Teacher Education and Educational Leadership at the University of West Florida. A former K–12 educator and previous research director for the Rural School and Community Trust, his research has been cited in state school finance litigation and legislation, and he has testified before state legislative committees and presented research briefings on Capitol Hill. Johnson earned a doctorate in Educational Administration from Ohio University.

Craig B. Howley of WordFarmers Associates recently retired from the Educational Studies Department at Ohio University. His research interests include educational scale, rural education, and the relationship between culture, political economy, and schooling. Forthcoming work includes a chapter (with Caitlin Howley) on neoliberal arrangements that extract profit from impoverished students and an article on contemporary dilemmas of rural superintendents. He earned his Ed.D. in Education Administration from West Virginia University.