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Mississippi’s rural schools have been neglected for years, resulting in poor academic performance and low graduation rates, according to a new report by the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust. The report ranked states on five indicators, including educational outcomes and college readiness, to determine which states should take “priority” based on poor outcomes for rural students. Mississippi topped the list as the “highest priority state,” followed by Arizona, Alabama, and South Carolina.

More than half of Mississippi’s schools are rural. At nearly 44 percent, the percentage of rural students enrolled in public schools in the state is one of the nation’s highest. Of this rural 44 percent, another 44 percent are minority students, and 71 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. That’s the second highest percentage of any state in the nation.

Mississippi received the “high priority” ranking due to these factors, as well as what the report calls “continuing neglect,” evidenced by per-pupil instructional spending lower than that of nearly every other state, and spending on teacher salaries that is the 13th lowest. Mississippi spends $4,676 per rural student, compared to the national average of $6,067. The report attributes the low test scores of the state’s rural students in part to this lower-than-average spending on per-pupil costs and salaries.

Robert Mahaffey, executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust, said recruiting and retaining teachers in rural areas should be a priority for states that want to improve outcomes. “It’s a false argument to think that teachers don’t want to be in rural places. They do,” Mahaffey said. “But they need to be supported and they need to be compensated.”

The report also includes special sections on other topics related to rural children, like food insecurity, childcare, and health issues. Check out the full report here.

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