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The U.S. Department of Education — if it wins budgetary approval for a third round of Race to the Top — is proposing to do things a bit differently this time. Instead of states competing against one another, individual districts would compete for grants from a $900 million pot — and the Department of Education will set aside a certain (as yet unspecified) amount for rural districts.

“We want to make sure that if we play at the district level that we have a good representation of rural, urban and suburban districts,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a press call on Monday. “We want to make sure that rural districts that may not have a grant writer, may not have the resources of a large urban district, have an absolute chance to compete and to be successful.”

Rural schools serve nine million students in the U.S., or about 20 percent of the nation’s total. Although large urban districts are often highlighted as evidence of academic failure, rural areas have their fair share of problems as well. About a quarter of students in rural areas drop out, and roughly a third of the 5,000 or so schools eligible for federal School Improvement Grants were in rural areas.

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Sarah Butrymowicz oversees and contributes to The Hechinger Report’s investigative and data work covering all levels of education, from early childhood to K-12 to higher education. She has worked at...

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