After traveling around the state this fall holding over a dozen forums with rural school officials “from Fredonia to Montauk," David Little, executive director of the Rural Schools Association of New York (RSA), told Capital Tonight that rural school districts are at a critical moment. Depending on how Albany responds to their needs this coming legislative session, they will either remain vibrant economic and social incubators that properly prepare children to rebuild the state’s rural culture or those same children could end up with lives of diminished opportunity.

“New York state used to have two and half times the amount of agriculture that it does now. It used to have to have a very vibrant upstate rural economy,” Little said. “Now, between the pandemic and the Great Recession that immediately preceded it, we’ve had the largest outward migration of people in U.S. history, except for the Dust Bowl during the Depression.”

According to Little, state and federal emergency aid investments have allowed rural schools to begin restoring needed programs and services, but without some key changes, that restoration will be stunted. 

To prevent that, Little recommends updating the Foundation Aid formula, as well as addressing how rural communities are expected to offer student mental health services.

This week, the New York State Board of Regents proposed starting the long process of updating the Foundation Aid Formula.

“The Regents state aid …starts to upgrade and reform the state aid formula, the basis for rural schools, because they have so little local economy left to support themselves. So the state has to come up with a viable way to educate of a third of its children,” he said. 

Interestingly, according to Little, rural students graduate in record number – far exceeding both urban and suburban graduation rates.

“But from there, it’s kind of crap shoot as to whether they succeed,” he said. 

Another big concern for rural school districts is finding funding for mental health telehealth services, which had been fundable under BOCES aid — until it wasn’t. 

“They were told that there’s no state authority to provide mental health services over the internet. Well, when you ban that, in essence, you deny rural kids the ability (to find services),” said Little. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s state budget address, which will include her school aid proposal, is expected to be delivered to the Legislature on Tuesday, Jan. 16.