A small rural town needed more Spanish-language child care. Here’s what it took

A small rural town needed more Spanish-language child care. Here’s what it took

LEXINGTON, Neb. — Naidid Aguilera was feeling stuck.

Stuck at her job at a Tyson meatpacking plant. Stuck in a central Nebraska town after emigrating from Mexico roughly 15 years earlier with her husband. Instead of working in her dream role as an elementary school teacher, she spent her days hauling cow organs for inspection. 

Then she learned about one group’s effort to expand access to high-quality child care here, specifically for families who speak little English, through free training and help navigating state licensing laws. The classes would be entirely in Spanish, eliminating one of the single-biggest hurdles for expanding care in this town of 11,000, where 2 out of 3 residents are Hispanic. For years, it had just one Spanish-speaking child care provider.

As Aguilera dialed the phone to sign up for classes, she recalled feeling overcome with emotion because she had believed her goal of working with children was left back in Mexico.

“The only question they really asked me was why I would want to pursue a child care license,” Aguilera said through a Spanish interpreter. “My response was, ‘I want to do more than where I’m at right now at Tyson and move further in life. I’m looking for another opportunity.’”

Through the local advocacy of several organizations, the community will have nine Spanish-speaking providers by this summer — including Aguilera. Although Lexington still has a waiting list of 550 children in need of care, the town’s child care gap has been cut by nearly 100 children with the addition of new providers, according to local data. 

A nonprofit group called Communities for Kids, partnering with other organizations, began training providers after community surveys revealed the town’s need for Spanish-language child care. The group, founded in 2017, helps develop quality early care and education programs in Nebraska communities that don’t have enough of them.

“If you can’t communicate, or your culture is different, trusting a white English-speaking woman with your child — that’s a lot of trust,” said Shonna Werth, Communities for Kids’ assistant vice president of early childhood programs.

Shonna Werth, left, talks to Miriam Guedes’ husband, Alberto, along with Maricela Novoa, right, and Stephanie Novoa, far right, at Blooming Daycare. Credit: Lauren Wagner for The Hechinger Report

At the time, with only one bilingual provider, most Hispanic families were shuffling their children among neighbors or family members for care. It was the only way for Spanish-speaking parents to communicate with a provider directly.

Some parents employed by the local meatpacking plants worked split shifts to ensure their children were with someone they could communicate with.

“You wonder, ‘Where are those kids? What experiences are they having?’” Werth said. 

Related: Our biweekly Early Childhood newsletter highlights innovative solutions to the obstacles facing the youngest students. Subscribe for free. 

There’s a lack of Spanish-speaking or bilingual early childhood education providers across the nation, said Tania Villarroel, early childhood senior policy analyst for UnidosUS, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. One of the barriers to growing the child care workforce is the process of getting certified.

“It’s a resource to speak Spanish, but if you don’t have good English skills, it can also be really hard to get those degrees,” Villarroel said. “It benefits Latino children to have a Latino provider because they have the same lived experience, same heritage — it’s easier for them to connect to families, to get more family engagement.”

Recent research from the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families found that Latino families across the United States consider multiple factors when trying to find child care, like schedule flexibility and whether the provider offers culturally responsive care for their children.

“Some [places] serve only Hispanic children, and they have Hispanic providers. But then other sites have no Hispanic children, and probably no Hispanic representation. So we see this sort of segregation going on,” said Julia Mendez, a researcher for the center. “There’s the families who are seeking the care and the families can’t find what they need, because it’s not available.”

Mendez said it’s common for home-based care to be of lower quality for Hispanic families, becauseif their providers don’t speak English, they have fewer opportunities for professional development or credentialing.

Boosting the quality of Lexington’s child care — not just its accessibility — was crucial, Werth said. She joined two local child care advocates, sisters Stephanie and Maricela Novoa, to implement the free training. Maricela Novoa is an early learning bilingual specialist providing assistance to early childhood educators through the Nebraska Department of Education. Stephanie Novoa, a realtor, also works with Communities for Kids and volunteers as a special advocate with the courts.

Maricela Novoa, left, stands with Shonna Werth, center, and Stephanie Novoa, right, outside Naidid Aguilera’s child care center. The three women have been key in increasing child care access for Spanish-speaking families in Lexington, Neb. Credit: Lauren Wagner for The Hechinger Report

The training in Lexington began in 2021 with a program called the “Professional Learning Series,” which included 55 hours of classes on the licensing process or required skills for high-quality early childhood education. The series was taught exclusively in English – and did not attract Spanish-speakers.

Another series followed in 2022, and this time, there was a professional interpreter and headsets available for translation. The class was held every Tuesday night from August through November at the local YMCA, with free child care and food available.

“We were kind of building that foundation of [making] sure there are things that if they want to get licensed, this will be useful for them if and when they ever get there,” Werth said. “Like, let’s not just do training for the sake of training, but training that has a dual purpose. They’re building their education and their skills so that they can have better interactions with the kids they are caring for or as parents, because not all of them are on that trajectory of being a child care provider.”

Related: Our child care system gives many moms a draconian choice: Quality child care or a career

Werth said when the classes first opened, the goal was to reach five or six participants. Twenty showed up.

“Midway through the classes, participants would bring a neighbor or a friend. And so we had to close the class because it was a small room,” said Maricela Novoa. “It was just that word of mouth, that trust piece — this is safe, this is good. This is something that you’ll value.”

Next was a 10-week business class in 2023, followed by courses on parenting and safety that were provided in English with a Spanish interpreter.

Aguilera said she remembers many long days last spring working at the meatpacking plant, then attending classes in the evening.

“The classes were one after another, but at the same time that was nice because it was just all over at once,” Aguilera said. “I was tired, but it was very worth it.”

Werth said it was slow-going to license the nine women, especially when they ran into language barriers.

“Stephanie and I met with six or eight participants one night. They all brought their licensing packets, and we sat down with them to help them just try to work through that. And [it] took hours to do, which should not be the case,” Werth said.

It took several hours more to help participants navigate an online class. Most of them had little experience working with technology other than their phones. Werth recalled the library closing around them one evening as they helped participants use computers for the first time.

Naidid Aguilera displays many Spanish materials in her new child care center, El Niño Del Tambor Daycare. She recently received her license to operate the center from her home in Lexington, Neb. Credit: Lauren Wagner for The Hechinger Report

Maricela Novoa said the lack of Spanish materials or Spanish-speaking representatives is a constant hurdle for future providers. Even now, a Lexington resident could call a state agency for help but not get anyone on the phone who can speak Spanish.

“It does get tiring, because you’re the only person in the room saying, ‘Hey, is this available in Spanish?’ when there’s a new resource available,” Maricela Novoa said. 

Mendez, of the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families, said her organization calls these obstacles “administrative burden.”

“It’s true across the board that any barrier, like a language barrier, can keep people out,” Mendez said. “With administrative burden, you have to learn what the resources are, but first, you have to know about them. And then you have to navigate the systems to try to figure out how to get the credential or the support that you’re looking for.”

Related: In-home child care could be solution for rural working parents

Just a few years ago, Miriam Guedes was the only Spanish-speaking child care provider in Lexington. She started a daycare on her own after being a paraprofessional at the public school district’s preschool for 19 years.

She obtained her license by herself — an uphill battle, she said, with all the paperwork in English — but soon wanted to do more, although she didn’t know how. 

Guedes, whose business is attached to her house, said people started knocking on her door asking if she had room for more kids, but she could take only eight at a time. 

“People were coming in, asking for more and more and more,” she said.

She learned about the free training being offered through Communities for Kids and signed up. The training gave her business experience and the skills to expand her certification, allowing her to care for 12 children at once at her center, “Blooming Daycare.” Now she’s a mentor to Aguilera and the other women who are getting licenses.

Children at Miriam Guedes’ child care center, Blooming Daycare, provided family photos and copied them into drawings for her picture wall. Credit: Lauren Wagner for The Hechinger Report

Aguilera opened her own child care business, “El Niño Del Tambor Daycare” early this spring. The name means “little drummer boy.” It’s in her basement, recently renovated to include cribs, small chairs and a table, organizers filled with colorful books and crafts, an alphabet rug and more. Her new license is taped to a marker board at the entrance.

She enrolled her first child mid-March and now has four children in her care, in addition to two of her own children. Aguilera said she could easily see herself hiring an assistant and taking on more children in the near future.

It’s something that changed her life for the better, she said.

“When I first started taking in kids, I kind of broke down a little bit because it came full circle,” Aguilera said. “I didn’t have the opportunity to stay home with my kids. And now I get to do this. I’m so happy.”

This story about child care solutions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Report: Rural America Produces Greenhouse Gasses on Behalf of Urban and Suburban Areas

A new report shows that at least 36% of annual greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from rural America, but they’re mostly used to produce energy and food for urban and suburban America. 

And while rural communities – particularly low-income and rural communities of color – are exposed to a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions, they’re not receiving the federal investments to decrease these emissions. 

“If we really want to meaningfully reduce emissions, [we need to invest] in efforts that are rural to reduce the emissions that are connected to that consumption,” said Maria Doerr,  lead author of the report and program officer for the Rural Climate Partnership, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “Rural America is the source of these emissions, but they are not the ones driving the demand that creates these emissions.”

The report was produced by the Rural Climate Partnership, a project of the nonprofit rural advocacy group the Heartland Fund. Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), they found that energy production and agriculture are the leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions in rural America. Industry like natural gas, petroleum, and cement manufacturing was the third leading source, and transportation and residential energy uses were the fourth and fifth, respectively. 

Doerr said that the emissions produced by power plants are a particularly potent source of greenhouse gas emissions, and nearly half of those emissions are produced by rural power plants. “That energy is being shipped out to the cities and suburbs,” Doerr said.

While the rest of America benefits from this power, rural communities are exposed to the toxic air pollutants from this power’s production. And these effects aren’t felt equally. 

Approximately 37% of rural residents within a three-mile radius of rural combustion plants are low-income, and 29% of residents within that radius are Black, Indigenous, or people of color, according to the report. Long-term exposure to these pollutants can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular problems, immune system damage, and cancer, according to the EPA

The federal government has passed legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change, but very little has been earmarked for rural America. 

Of the combined total appropriations from three major climate laws – the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS & Science Act, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – only 2.3% of the funding is earmarked exclusively for rural communities, according to an analysis from the Brookings Institute. About 20% of the funding is rural-stipulated. 

Rural America should be prioritized for this funding because it’s at the center of some of the most carbon-intensive industries, according to the Rural Climate Partnership.

“In the vast expanse of rural and small-town America, there is a story that has been largely untold, one of significant emissions reduction potential shadowed by systematic underinvestment,” wrote Doerr in the report. 

Doerr said they hope this report encourages legislators to rethink rural America’s role in climate solutions. 

“I hope that this report can help start some powerful conversations about…how we support, uplift, and invest in rural America and rural-based climate solutions,” Doerr said. 

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Rural Coloradans’ Show Strong Support for Abortion-Rights Constitutional Amendment

Patty Coen was able to finish her bachelor’s degree because she had an abortion. Ever since, the Southwest Colorado resident has been an advocate for abortion access and reproductive justice. 

She worked as a nurse at a reproductive-care agency in Durango for about seven years. When a campaign started to protect abortion rights by getting a state constitutional amendment on the ballot, she headed the petition drive in rural Montezuma County, where she lives.

She said her personal story and her experience working at Planned Parenthood 

compelled her to get involved. 

“I worked at Planned Parenthood when Texas shut down abortion as unnecessary healthcare during Covid,” Coen said. “So I saw the people with uteruses drive 12 hours, have their abortion, get right back in the car and drive back to Texas.” 

Coen said she wanted to make sure that voters in Montezuma County had a chance to help get the amendment on the November ballot. 

“I really wanted our county to be represented,” Coen said. 

Although rural voters as a group are more likely than voters in large cities to support conservative candidates, that doesn’t necessarily translate into anti-abortion preferences. A poll of rural voters in swing states to be released this month by the Rural Democracy Initiative found that three-quarters of respondents said women should be in charge of decisions about abortion. 

“I know we [people who support abortion rights] are here,” Coen said. “You see the loud people of hate, and it’s like, yeah, they’re loud and they make you think they’re a lot of ’em. But I mean, wow, we got a lot of signatures.”

Abortion is currently legal in Colorado at all stages of pregnancy. The proposed Initiative 89 seeks to amend the Colorado constitution so that the legality of abortion in the state can not change in the future. It also would allow for public health insurance funds to cover abortion, overturning a current constitutional amendment prohibiting state insurance and Medicaid from paying for abortion care. 

To get on the ballot in Colorado, initiative petitions that seek to make changes to the constitution need at least 124,238 signatures with signatures from at least two percent of the registered voters in each of the 35 Colorado state senate districts. 

Cobalt, a Colorado abortion advocacy nonprofit, helped organize the signature gathering for Initiative 89, along with a coalition of organizations under the name Coloradans for Protecting Reproductive Freedom.

According to Laura Chapin, communications consultant for Cobalt, the petition was turned in to the Colorado Secretary of State with 230,000 signatures on April 18th, a week earlier than the deadline of April 26th. On May 17th, 2024, the Proposed Initiative 89 qualified for the November ballot.

A wall in Patty Coen’s sewing room, decorated with pro-choice stickers and art. (Photo by Ilana Newman)

“​​Rural Colorado was pretty awesome because people are really motivated. If you come to them and say, ‘we want to put abortion rights in the Colorado constitution,’ you get a really strong response. We’ve been really pleased with the rural outreach and the rural response,” said Chapin.

Coen, who lives in Montezuma County, said that even within Colorado there is not enough access to abortion care in the more rural regions, like Southwest Colorado. When Coen worked there, the Durango Planned Parenthood offered surgical abortions, but now only offers medical abortions. 

The Cortez Planned Parenthood, in Montezuma County, also offers medical abortions, but for a large chunk of the region including Montrose and the San Juan Mountain towns, accessing abortion care means driving over the San Juan mountains to one of two Southwestern Planned Parenthoods, west to Salida, or north to Glenwood Springs, a trip of at least 2 hours and including several mountain passes depending on the direction. 

At the same time that the petition drive to get Initiative 89 on the ballot was underway, a petition for an opposing initiative was also underway in Colorado to ban abortion after conception. The initiative did not receive enough signatures to appear on the ballot.

Abortion-rights petitions to add abortion access to state constitutions as a 2024 ballot initiative are in progress or have already been successful in many states including Arizona, Nebraska, Missouri, Maryland, Florida, and others. However, most of these measures only protect abortion until viability, which is not the case in Colorado. Colorado allows for abortion throughout the pregnancy. 

Montezuma County and Southwest Colorado’s location in the Four Corners makes it the ideal destination for out-of-state abortion seekers from neighboring states with harsher abortion laws like Arizona and Utah, or further away in Texas and Oklahoma.

“We’ve got to be a refuge state for this. We’re surrounded by states that are 100% against abortion,” said Coen.

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Rural Schools Look for Ways to Bring More Multilingual Education into the Curriculum

Throughout rural America, non-native English speakers are less likely than their urban peers to get proper support in school, sometimes leading to a lifetime of lower educational attainment. But some rural schools are developing multilingual education strategies to rival those found in urban and suburban districts.

In general, it’s easier to fund more diverse course offerings in bigger schools. From Advanced Placement U.S. History to Spanish immersion, more students means more funding. But in rural DuBois County, Indiana, administrators are prioritizing English-learner education. There, students have access to “gold standard” multilingual programming, a hard-won achievement for any U.S. school, but especially for such a small district.

“We are the only school in the region who started a dual language program,” said Rossina Sandoval, Southwest DuBois County School District’s director of community engagement, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.

To meet the gold standard, students in the dual language immersion program receive 50% of their instruction in English and 50% of their instruction in Spanish. Fifty percent of the program is made up of students whose native language is Spanish and the other half is made up of native English speakers. The program is currently offered from kindergarten through third grade, with plans to expand to fourth and fifth grade.

By developing a program with 50/50 language instruction and 50/50 student enrollment, students are able to not only learn both their native and target language from their teachers, but they are also able to learn from each other, Sandoval said.

“That has proven to be the most effective way to develop language skills,” she said.

When the program was first introduced, the school received pushback from both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking families. Spanish-speaking families felt the school should prioritize English learning, given that their children already speak Spanish at home. And English-speaking families worried that they wouldn’t be able to help their children with Spanish homework.

To address family concerns on both sides, the school shared information about the benefits of formal bilingual education. In addition to maintaining their conversational skills, Spanish-speaking students receive instruction in grammar, spelling, and reading in their native language. This approach helps students who already speak another language read and write in another language, too.

Second-grade students in Clinton County’s Bi-Literacy program learn about fruits and vegetables in Spanish. (Photo by Esmeralda Cruz)

Learning two languages does not hurt a student’s ability to master either one. Bilingual children are shown to have better focus and logical reasoning, and – according to Sandoval – will be suited to a wider range of opportunities in the workforce.

“It’s natural, we want the best for our kids,” she said. “The best we can do is educate the community as a whole that this is the best method to develop multilingualism, this is the best method to enhance global skills and produce global citizens.”

Intersecting Problems

The Latino population in DuBois County has been expanding for decades. Today it sits at 9.5%,  which is approximately half the national percentage. But in Southwest DuBois County schools, more than a third of students identify as Latino. (The disparity in those numbers reflects higher birth rates within the Latino population and the uneven distribution of those families within the county.)

The demographics of rural schools have been changing nationwide. According to a recent report from the National Rural Education Association, 80,000 more English-learner and multilingual students were enrolled in rural districts in the 2021 school year than in 2013.

Historically, rural school districts have struggled to provide high quality education to non-native English speakers. When English-learner populations are small, it can be difficult to fund robust bilingual programming and easy to overlook their necessity.

Rural English learners sit at the intersection of overlapping structural problems in public education. The national teacher shortage is worse in nonmetropolitan places, and it’s most problematic in racially diverse and high-poverty rural schools. Nationally, there aren’t enough bilingual educators, or educators certified to teach English as a second language (ESL).

According to recent research, while English-learner populations are growing in rural places, rural multilingual learners are less likely to receive instruction in their native languages. And while federal guidelines require that all non-native English speakers receive specialized instruction, in rural places only a little more than 60% actually do.

DuBois County’s top-tier bilingual education program should be used as a model in other rural school districts, Sandoval said. “As an immigrant, as a U.S. citizen, I feel very proud… because this can be replicated in communities that look like ours.”

Support for these programs must be built inside and outside the schoolhouse, Sandoval said. “There has to be a degree of openness toward bilingualism or multilingualism.This is an effort that’s not just made by me, it’s made by the school and by the community.”

A third-grade student in Clinton Country’s Bi-Literacy program reviews a lesson about the universe by playing bingo. (Photo by Esmeralda Cruz)

Programs that increase accessibility and trust with parents include “Cafe en el Parque,” a parent meeting held in Spanish that draws in over 100 families each month, and the “Emergent Bilingual” program, which meets after school and on weekends helps new immigrant students and families learn more about how the American education system works.

Programs that help establish community support and participation include “Fuertes Together,” a partnership with the public library where families can hear stories in Spanish and English and engage with cultural music, dance, and art. And a new program, “Bilingual Village,” helps bilingual students identify speaking partners in the community who can converse in the student’s new language.

A Wide Range of Strategies

When Esmeralda Cruz was a child in the 1990s, she immigrated with her family from Mexico to rural Clinton County, Indiana, where she lives and works today. “Back then,” she said, “there were not a lot of Latino families in the area. In my first grade classroom I only had one classmate that was bilingual.” This posed major challenges to her education: Esmeralda said that, instead of receiving proper language instruction, she was placed in classes meant to address learning disabilities.

Cruz’s experience is not unique, according to Maria Coady, professor of multilingual education at North Carolina State University. In places that aren’t accustomed to supporting immigrant populations, she’s seen English learners sent to speech therapy in place of proper ESL classes. “Schools might think that all these kids have special learning needs because it looks like they’re not learning,” she said, “when in fact, they’re just learning the language.”

As immigrant populations grow throughout the rural U.S., newcomers often find themselves in Cruz’s childhood position – navigating school districts unaccustomed to educating non-native English speakers.

Today, Cruz works as a Hispanic community engagement director for Purdue Extension. Prior to that, she was the health and human sciences educator at Purdue Extension office in Clinton County, Indiana.

According to scholars of rural multilingual education, schools that do have ESL or bilingual systems in place exist across a broad spectrum, from gold-standard bilingual education programs like the one in DuBois County to ESL sessions that require students to miss part of the school day and provide no native-language instruction.

Hilda Robles instructs fourth-grade students during a lesson in Clinton County’s Bi-Literacy program. (Photo by Esmeralda Cruz)

In places with very small English-learner populations, Coady said, schools might pool resources and “bring in an itinerant teacher – that is, a teacher who might travel between several rural schools to provide ESL services.”

This is the least effective method of multilingual education for two reasons, Coady said: it’s disruptive to pull students out of class, and ESL teachers are only able to offer very limited amounts of time to individual students.

Where to Begin?

In rural places, small expansions in local industries that rely heavily on immigrant and migrant labor can create major shifts in student populations, said Holly Hansen-Thomas, professor of bilingual education at Texas Woman’s University. “And these teachers may not have the experience or the background to serve these emergent bilingual families that keep coming to work and to support the industry.”

For rural school districts inexperienced in providing multilingual education, said Hansen-Thomas, professional development is the place to begin.

Federal grants are available to support multilingual certifications for teachers and administrators. For instance, the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition offers a National Professional Development Program, which makes grants to colleges and universities to fund work on multilingual teaching skills for local educators. Hansen-Thomas also points to the U.S. Department of Education’s “Newcomer Tool Kit,” a resource for rural educators looking to support recent-immigrant students and families.

In Indiana, colleges and universities are attempting to build manageable pathways for multilingual educators who might not be formally trained as teachers. “Our pre-service teachers tend to be white and monolingual,” said Stephanie Oudghiri, clinical associate professor at Purdue’s College of Education. “Especially in the Midwest, as our demographics are changing, we need folks that are multilingual.”

Experts like Cruz stress the importance of listening to non-native English speakers themselves when building out these programs. “We’ve had a lot of focus groups and community conversations and I can’t tell you how many times people at the table have said, ‘Thank you for including me,’” Cruz said.

“I think oftentimes they do want to be at the table, they just don’t know how, and so we’re making sure that we’re listening to them and then going from there, rather than the other way around.”

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Republicans Double Down on School Vouchers by Taking Fight to Rural Members of Their Own Party

State Republican leaders are cracking down on rural members of their own party who oppose universal school vouchers, which allow families to take a portion of their state’s education funding away from public schools to pay for their child’s private education.

Rural state legislators have been more likely to oppose school voucher laws because they worry the programs will weaken local public schools without ensuring educational investments for rural students. 

Opposition to vouchers has been a rare point of agreement between rural Republicans and urban Democrats, who also tend to oppose vouchers.

But recently, the state leaders in the Republican Party have resorted to more aggressive tactics to force voucher legislation through to the governor’s desk, said Jennifer Berkshire, author of the forthcoming book called The Education Wars: The Citizen’s Guide and Defense Manual, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.

“The biggest change that has happened over the last few years is a fairly successful effort to define school choice as a kind of litmus test for Republicans, the way that something like abortion has been historically,” Berkshire said. 

Public schools provide more than just a high school diploma in rural areas, which frequently lack private alternatives. They are a large employer, serve as public gathering spaces for community events, and they inform the community’s next generation of workers, voters, and leaders.

Berkshire, who’s reported extensively on the politics of public schools, said that the voucher debate isn’t new, but it’s been heating up in the past few years. She said the Republican Party has been ramping up this fight for years now by degrading perceptions of public education, framing it as a welfare program and the source of radical indoctrination.

While rural voters and legislators haven’t been swayed by the quasi-populist rhetoric and continue to oppose private school vouchers, Republican Party leaders are spending millions of dollars to challenge rural Republican defectors.

Just last month in Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott targeted Republican members of the state house who opposed his school choice initiative using out-of-state cash from billionaire donors and super PACs. Six members were defeated in the March 5 primary and four more were forced into runoffs.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott is a staunch defender of school choice in his state, punishing pro-voucher members of his own party with primary challenges. (Photo by Eric Gay / AP)

In response, grassroots campaigns against aggressive pro-voucher efforts are popping up, like Reclaim Idaho. The organization, co-founded by Idaho resident Luke Mayville, mobilized a group of teachers, administrators, families, students, and others to oppose vouchers.

“A critical factor has been the outpouring of phone calls, emails, and public testimony from Idahoans across the state,” Mayville said. “Public comment and testimony has made it very clear that the school-voucher agenda is not the will of the people.”

What’s a School Voucher?

School voucher programs have taken different forms in different states, to maneuver around restrictive state constitutions and resistant citizens. 

In traditional school voucher programs, when a family chooses to send their child to a private school, the state government directly awards the private schools with taxpayers funds to cover at least part of the cost of the student’s education.

This practice was found unconstitutional in states like Colorado, where the state’s Supreme Court ruled that one district’s voucher program violated separation of church and state because it funneled public funds to religious schools. 

A new voucher program, commonly called an Educational Savings Account (ESA), has become a popular and successful route that Republicans have taken to advance their school choice agenda.

Unlike traditional vouchers that directly award public funds to private schools, ESAs deposit taxpayer funds into savings accounts that families can use to pay for various educational purposes including tuition at private and religious schools.

In states where resistance to voucher programs has been more robust, Republicans are also experimenting with tax credit programs that provide tax relief to businesses or individuals who donate to organizations that give educational scholarships to students attending private schools. 

Another important term in the school-voucher debate is “universal.”

Historically, school vouchers were limited to students in need — like students who are disabled or come from low-income homes — so they could gain access to particular services that their local public school may not provide. 

That changed in 2021 and 2022, when West Virginia and Arizona became the first two states to enact universal school choice, allowing any family, regardless of their socioeconomic status, to gain access to taxpayer dollars to cover private school tuition. 

Since then, nine other states have joined in adopting universal voucher programs, and more are considering similar programs.

Welfare for the Wealthy?

Proponents of school choice say that voucher programs will help resolve educational inequities across the country for students, especially for students in need. 

“In any area, some number of families may decide that the assigned neighborhood school is not working for their students,” said Andy Smarick, who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank committed to policy research in areas like school choice. “School choice enables those families to access other options.”

Smarick acknowledged that there are specific challenges that make school voucher programs less popular in rural areas, like lack of access to private schools and higher risks of public school consolidation or closure.

“To date at least, more densely populated areas have benefited more from school choice programs,” he said.

Jonathan E. Collins, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University, says that school voucher programs may only deepen the social and economic inequalities they claim to fix, and could ultimately harm the country’s public education system.

If state education budgets begin to move toward supporting private schools through vouchers,  public schools could see a decrease in state funding. This is exacerbated when universal voucher programs are passed that would provide state funds to students from wealthy families who were already paying for private school tuition. 

Rural communities may face a disproportionate amount of economic stress, as voucher money is even less likely to trickle down to rural families who lack access to private schools, Collins said in an interview with the Daily Yonder.

Another of the key demographic that school choice advocates claim vouchers will help are low-income families in the southern Black Belt region.

“Policy makers have been trying to build a multi-racial coalition around school voucher programs,” Collins said. “They are championing the idea that Black families should support vouchers as a way to create educational equality for Black youth.”

The messaging that voucher programs create a more equal, integrated education system contradicts another front of the voucher campaign: the public school culture wars.

If you want to get families to turn their backs on public schools in support of school vouchers, you’ve got to convince them that the schools have taken a turn for the worse, said Jack Schneider, professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.

“You have to convince them that something is fundamentally rotten at their core and that it has happened quickly and covertly,” he said. “Otherwise you’re telling people that they’re stupid and they haven’t seen what’s happening right under their noses.”

This political technique tries to suggest that public schools prevent parents from getting involved in their child’s education. This provides rhetoric for the parents’ rights movement, who say “they want to be able to control what their children are exposed to in schools,” Collins said. “To have the right to keep their kids from being indoctrinated into critical race theory and the politics of gender.”

In reality, public schools best help prepare the next generation of political participants in American democracy by teaching students how to interact with people from different homes, with different cultural values and experiences, Collins said.

“If there’s a continued siphon of kids away from our public schools systems, which has been our best way of getting people to interact across backgrounds,” Collins said. “Then what do we have left?”

The folks who are pushing hardest for school vouchers, conservative elites, are also the ones who have the most to gain, said Schneider, who also pointed out that the top users of vouchers are families whose children were not in the public education system, and who are using these vouchers to reimburse themselves for private school tuition that they were already paying.

“The irony here is a bitter one,” he said. “So much of the rhetoric in the Republican Party of the past five to 10 years has been about anti-elitism and the ordinary, forgotten Americans … But the push against public education is chiefly rooted in market thinking and is very much about the best interests of elites who don’t understand why they have to be financially on the hook for paying for the education of other people’s children.”

The Cash Register for Politics

Advocates of school vouchers say that voucher programs provide families with more control over their child’s educational experience, that families should be afforded transparency in knowing what their child is taught and the power to choose. 

In 2019, Robert Asen, a professor in the communication arts department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, interviewed rural public school advocates in Wisconsin about the concerns they had with school voucher programs that had recently been enacted in the state.

He found that many rural advocates felt their state government wasn’t being transparent with how school voucher programs were being funded and how the programs would impact the funding their local public schools would receive. 

“People in rural communities tend to like their public schools,” Collins said. “Drumming up political support for this type of program is not a selling point if you’re a rural Republican legislator.”

That was until leaders in the Republican Party and billionaire donors started to challenge rural Republicans who defected from the party’s all-or-nothing stance on universal school vouchers.

Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall, a popular rural legislator, faced big money blowback for halting a school voucher bill in 2022.

Residents of Sulphur, which, with a population of 5,000, is the largest town in McCall’s district, received a wave of political mailers and TV ads attacking the representative. The money for this political blitz came from Club for Growth, a conservative PAC located in Washington, D.C..

Unlike the representatives from Iowa and Texas, McCall’s constituents continued to support their representative. 

“We felt like we had school choice in rural Oklahoma already,” said Matt Holder, superintendent of Sulphur Public Schools, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.

The Sulphur school district already operated on a system of open enrollment that didn’t pose any financial concerns, Holder explained. That system allows students who live outside of district to transfer in. Many other districts and states across the country also offer some form of open public enrollment.

Last year, the Oklahoma legislature enacted a universal school choice program that will award tax credits to families who pay for private school tuition. 

Unlike traditional school vouchers that take money out of the pot for education in Oklahoma, this program seemed to be more palatable because the money is coming from elsewhere, Holder said. 

As an additional compromise, the state increased the education budget by  more than $500 million.

“They put more money into public education funding than they have ever before,” Holder said.

But while the school tax credit program, which reduces the state’s revenue, will persist for the foreseeable future, there’s no guarantee that the state will continue to allocate unprecedented amounts of money for public education.

“It’s too soon to tell what, if any, ramifications there might be from that,” Holder said. 

Republicans in other states have been less compromising. Pro-voucher hardliners, backed by big money, have successfully replaced rural Republicans in primary races in states like Iowa and Texas.

“School privatization is really a top-down model of policy change,” said Asen, the Wisconsin professor who studied rural attitudes toward school vouchers. “These changes are driven by a small group of lobbyists and financial backers against large-scale public opinion.”

“It’s like a cash register for politics,” Collins said. “There’s big money in it. There’s big money in terms of the donors who are getting behind candidates who support it, especially in the Republican Party.”

The Persistence of Rural Resistance

While some school choice advocates say that rural residents are becoming more supportive of voucher programs, numerous rural grassroots organizations have begun advocating against such policies in light of the aggressive voucher movement in the Republican Party. 

In Wisconsin, rural advocates told Asen that they rejected the idea that education is a commodity.

 “They wanted to emphasize the important roles that public schools played in these rural towns,” Asen. “Public schools weren’t just a place where kids go to learn, they were a place where the community came together to establish a common identity and civic sensibility.”

To many rural families, education isn’t a consumer good. It’s a public good. Students aren’t just consumers. They are community members. They are citizens. They are community members.

Jess Piper is a retired rural public school teacher from Missouri who made a run for state office in 2022 as a Democrat.

After losing the general election, she decided to found Blue Missouri, an organization that seeks to increase political competition by raising money for down ballot Democrats who don’t receive party funding.

Education funding remains a top priority of Piper’s work. Missouri ranks 50th nationally in teacher pay and 49th in educational funding. 

“The state only covers 32% of any school’s budget and the rest comes from local taxes,” she said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “If you live in a rural community, that’s going to be tough.”

Part of Piper’s work involves going door to door in her community to speak with her neighbors about policy issues like school funding.

She says that supporting public schools is a bipartisan issue in rural communities, that rural Democrats and Republicans don’t always think in line with the larger party.

“I’ve never knocked on a door where someone said, ‘Gee, I wish there was a private school I could send my kid to,’” Piper said.

Piper says she’s up against a big pile of money from folks like Rex Fel, Betsy DeVos, Leonard Leo, and the Herzog Foundation. 

“They have no reason. They have no data. They have nothing to prove that vouchers are better,” she said. “They only have lies, rhetoric, and a s***-ton of money.”

In March, after agreeing to increasing public education funding and teacher salaries, Missouri lawmakers passed a sprawling education bill that expands the tax-credit scholarship program to all counties in the state and increases the income cap used to determine eligibility for the program.

In rural Idaho, similar efforts have been led by Reclaim Idaho. The organization originated as a small-scale, short-term campaign to keep funding intact for a local school district in North Idaho.

But after seeing local success, the organization launched statewide, focusing on protecting public schools, public lands, and healthcare for working families. An initial success of the organization was securing a $410 million increase in state education funding.

When it comes to school vouchers, there is very little bottom-up interest for school choice in Idaho, organization co-founder Luke Mayville wrote in an email to the Daily Yonder.

“Idahoans generally believe in public education and value their local public schools, especially tiny towns and rural communities,” Mayville said. “The problem is that national special-interest groups have decided Idaho is an easy target for their agenda.”

Mayville says that vouchers would transfer wealth out of rural Idaho communities to provide “new entitlements” for affluent suburban families.

Mayville credits the success of the organizations anti-voucher efforts to a coalition of teachers, administrators, families, students, and citizens who contributed to an outpouring of phone calls, emails, and public testimony.

“Public comment and testimony has made it very clear that the school-voucher agenda is not the will of the people,” he said.

The post Republicans Double Down on School Vouchers by Taking Fight to Rural Members of Their Own Party appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

Q&A: Can the Farm Bill Promote Racial Justice?

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

New research from American University and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund says the currently stalled farm bill is an avenue for reversing historic discrimination against farmers of color by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

I spoke with Sara Clarke Kaplan, executive director of American’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, to learn more about their new toolkit – “Pointing the Farm Bill Toward Racial Justice.”

Enjoy our conversation about the current state of the farm bill, and Kaplan’s hopes for its future, below.

Black farmers gather at Farm Aid 1999. (Photo courtesy of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund)

What’s the current state of the farm bill? Or, in other words, what’s the occasion for this toolkit? 

The farm bill is reauthorized every five years; reauthorization is always a big deal because there’s a tremendous amount of money involved for issues ranging from sustainable agriculture to farm extension programs to nutritional assistance programs. This reauthorization was especially high stakes because of the infusion of money from the Inflation Reduction Act into conservation programs. In 2023, ARPC, The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, UC Berkeley’s Food Institute, and AU’s Center for Environment, Community, and Equity convened a national summit on racial justice and the farm bill when Congress was in the process of deliberating a new Bill. Unfortunately, Congress kicked the farm bill reauthorization into 2024 and we still don’t have a new farm bill. That means that the goal of building in policy changes that would increase racial justice is still a critical issue right now.  

That said, this work – and this toolkit – isn’t just about a single reauthorization: it’s part of a longstanding and ongoing collaboration of grassroots agricultural organizations and food justice scholars that has produced a strong, lasting coalition of farmers, advocates, researchers, and workers who are seeking to infuse questions of racial equity into food, climate, and agricultural justice. The toolkit reflects that coalitional thinking, with the goal of carrying it forward into ongoing efforts for this eventual farm bill reauthorization and beyond. 

Why is the farm bill a good target for justice-oriented demands?  

It’s important to remember that the farm bill is a huge omnibus bill, and the primary Congressional vehicle for setting U.S. agricultural and food policy. As such, it’s an instrument for distributing huge amounts of money and for setting multi-year political priorities. It’s not just farm subsidies, it’s the provision of rural broadband, the mediation of food insecurity, the decision of who has access to the treasury of germplasm. These funds are already slated to be spent on agriculture, so the question becomes where these resources will go? How can we ensure that the farm bill’s policies and allocation of resources address the needs, interests, and long term sustainability and wellbeing of all of the diverse people who are impacted by its 12 titles? And if you look carefully, some of the most important racial justice issues of our time are present in the farm bill. Researchers of mass incarceration have traced how when small farmers lose their farms, it opens that land up to prison development; reproductive justice organizers have pointed out that the ability to have and raise children requires secure access to healthy, affordable food; there are so many ways in which the farm bill is a critical site for interventions by people and organizations committed to intersectional racial justice. 

This research is based on years of listening sessions and symposia with Black farmers. What were the most surprising findings from those community-based conversations? 

Our colleagues at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, conducted two years of extensive listening sessions with their many Black farmer and landowner members in the South. These were led by their former Director of Land Retention and Advocacy, Dãnia Davy, who is now continuing this important work at Oxfam. The results of these unprecedented listening sessions were distilled and presented at the summit, where we continued to discuss them with farmers, researchers, and other allied grassroots organizations. While I can speak to those summit presentations and conversations, our Federation colleagues are really the experts on this.

One point that Federation speakers emphasized was that despite provisions in the previous farm bill for “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers” many programs and sources of funding are still not reaching Black farmers. At the summit, we discussed various ideas for making the language in policy more specific about the needs of Black farmers, Indigenous farmers, and other farmers of color.

Our colleagues at the Federation – and Dãnia in particular – also called attention to the intersecting challenges that Black farmers and landowners face that make it even more difficult for them to work the land: lack of broadband internet, the dearth of child and elder care in the communities, etc. It goes without saying that these are issues of racial, social, and economic justice.  

Sara Clarke Kaplan is an associate professor of literature and the executive director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center. (Photo provided by Kaplan)

The toolkit’s central tenet is “Climate Justice = Racial Justice = Food Justice = Farm Justice.” Can you elaborate on that idea?  

I can imagine that at first glance, this equation might seem cryptic, but it’s crafted to clarify matters by making implicit connections explicit. All too often, discussions of agricultural policy marginalize questions of racial equity and justice, and far too little is known in the broader racial justice movement about the long history and ongoing role that farming and farmers have played in racial liberation struggles in the U.S. and globally. I consider myself as having been part of that problem. I’m relatively new to Farm Justice, with a long history in racial and gender justice movements, but largely in urban settings. Yet the more I learn about central issues in Farm Justice work, the more I see how inextricably these issues and movements are entwined.  

Of course, rural participants in grassroots racial justice movements have always known this. Take, for example, projects like Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative, which enabled Black farmers and sharecroppers who had been excluded, exploited, and terrorized by white landowners to exercise self-determination while providing a source of much-needed food to the hundreds of poor Black families who worked that land. Or take the BIPOC farmers who are innovating new approaches to regenerative agriculture and the building of sustainable, resilient rural communities, who are at the frontlines experiencing the effects of climate change. As long as the vast majority of recent investments in conservation and climate-smart agriculture are directed to white farmers, existing racial disparities will increase, and we will all lose out on opportunities to benefit from the climate-forward work of these small BIPOC farmers.  

What’s the connection between American University and this Farm Justice work? 

It’s so important to remember the historical relationship between institutions of higher education in the United States and agriculture. There are over 100 land grant universities in the U.S., from large, well-known universities like Cornell or the University of California, Berkeley to small HBCUs like the University of the District of Columbia. Not only did those land-grant institutions’ original emphasis on agriculture, science, and engineering, create an idea of postsecondary education and research as a resource for everyone, not just elites, but it was through the land grant system that the HBCU system and Tribal College system as we know them now first came into being. In fact, several of our collaborators on the summit and the toolkit came from land-grant universities: April Love from Alcorn State’s Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center, Sakeenah Shabazz from The Berkeley Food Institute at UC Berkeley, Mchezaji Axum from the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia. Of course, that’s not a history that American University shares. But AU faculty like Garrett Graddy-Lovelace, for example, have been working in collaboration with community partners like the Federation, Rural Coalition, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, for years – in some cases, over a decade – to build a coalition that connects grassroots movements, farmers and farmworkers, and researchers and scholars. And that’s where the Antiracist Research and Policy Center comes in. From summit to toolkit to our forthcoming online research hub, the “Pointing the farm bill Toward Racial Justice” project is an example of what we believe is the best way toward future social justice: the creation of transformative, scholarship through reciprocal, equitable, and sustainable collaborations among scholars, organizers, and policymakers, presented in ways that are accessible to everyone, including the people most impacted by the issues we address. Not only does it touch on all of our core focus areas – that is, not just climate, land, and environmental justice, but race and reproduction, educational access and equity, and even carceral politics – but it’s an important opportunity for us to remind people that race issues aren’t just urban issues – race is a huge part of the fabric of rural and agricultural American life, and needs to be addressed as such.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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The post Q&A: Can the Farm Bill Promote Racial Justice? appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

Rural Population Grows for Second Consecutive Year

A Daily Yonder analysis of 2023 Census Bureau data showed that rural America gained population for the second year in a row, continuing to reverse a decade-long trend of rural population loss.

The gain came primarily in counties that are closest to metropolitan areas and was the result of people moving to those counties from other parts of the country or internationally.

From 2022 to 2023, the number of people living in nonmetropolitan (rural) counties grew by 109,000 residents, a 0.24% increase. That’s slightly lower than the 150,000 residents that rural America gained from 2021 to 2022. These gains came after rural America lost nearly 300,000 residents in the 2010s. 

Meanwhile, metropolitan counties grew by 1.5 million residents from 2022 and 2023, a 0.53% increase in population.

Migration Fueled Rural Growth

In nonmetropolitan counties, growth came primarily from people moving to rural communities, both from the U.S. and abroad.

The Census’ annual population estimates include numbers for  births, deaths, and migration. Those figures helped us see what demographic components caused changes in the American population. 

From 2022 to 2023, 229,000 people moved to rural counties. Seventy-nine percent of those migrants moved from other parts of the U.S., while the remaining 20% of migrants (48,000 people) came from outside the country. 

But that gain was offset by what demographers call natural decrease, which happens when the number of deaths is greater than the number of births. In 2023, rural counties recorded 610,000 deaths and 491,000 births. Nonmetropolitan counties lost 119,000 residents to natural decrease. 

Rural Counties Near Cities Gain Population

Ninety-seven percent of the rural population growth happened in nonmetropolitan counties that are adjacent to metropolitan counties.  From 2022 to 2023, rural counties adjacent to metros gained 105,000 residents. Counties not adjacent to metro areas only gained 3,500 residents. 

The table above breaks out nonmetropolitan counties into two types: those that are adjacent to a metropolitan area and those that are not.

In both urban adjacent and non-adjacent counties, domestic migration was the predominant driver of population growth. From 2022 to 2023, 159,000 domestic migrants moved to rural counties near metro centers, while 22,000 domestic migrants moved to rural counties not adjacent to urban counties.

From 2022 to 2023, 4,300 people moved to Jackson County, Georgia, a rural county of about 89,000 adjacent to Athens, for example. 

Metro Growth Returns to Pre-Pandemic Norm

From 2022 to 2023, metropolitan counties grew faster than nonmetropolitan counties, and growth in the nation’s largest cities returned to pre-pandemic patterns.

Population change in major metropolitan areas (those with populations of 1 million or more) gained 128,000 residents from 2022 to 2023, a 0.14% increase. These places lost population during the pandemic, but the gain last year represented a nationwide shift to pre-pandemic population trends, according to the Census Bureau.

The suburbs of major metropolitan counties, meanwhile, saw a growth of 0.78% from 2022, an addition of 746,000 more people.

The biggest gains in population occurred in the suburbs of medium-sized metros, which added 183,000 residents to the population, a 1% growth since 2022. Brunswick County, North Carolina, a coastal community of about 160,000 residents, gained 7,000 more people between 2022 and 2023, for example. 

Both small and medium-sized metros saw about a half of a percentage point increase in population from 2022 to 2023. Small metros grew by 172,000, while medium-sized metros grew by 300,000 residents.

Statewide Data

Some of the most significant rural growth occurred in the South. Among some of the fastest growing states were Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Florida.

Texas had the greatest raw-number increase in rural population. About 27,000 people moved to nonmetropolitan counties in Texas between 2022 and 2023. But that migration was offset by natural decrease, when the number of deaths is greater than the number of births. The resulting net gain in rural Texas was 24,000 residents, a 0.8% increase over 2022.

Florida, meanwhile, had the greatest rural rate of increase. Thirteen thousand people moved to rural Florida in 2023. But deaths outpaced births by about three to four. The consequent net gain in population was about 1.47%, or 11,000 residents.

Florida’s rural growth was part of a statewide trend, which saw the state second only to South Carolina in overall population increase.

Not every state saw an increase in rural populations, however. Louisiana had the worst rate of rural population decline. Louisiana lost 5,900 rural residents, a 0.82% drop from 2022. About 4,500 people moved out of rural Louisiana between 2022 and 2023, and the remaining population loss was due to natural decrease.

The post Rural Population Grows for Second Consecutive Year appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

A Rare Printing Press, a Community Art Space, a Small Town Where Creativity Thrives

In rural news and analysis, there’s a lot of talk about what happens when a small town’s newspaper goes out of business. But what about when a town’s former newspaper building gets repurposed to bring a hub of art and media – and affordable housing – to its small Western community?

The Mancos Times-Tribune was written and printed in a small building on Grand Avenue in Mancos, Colorado from 1910 until 1970, when the paper merged with the Cortez Journal to create a regional newspaper. The building was boarded up and forgotten about for 40 years, until 2013 when 100 years of old newspapers were discovered, along with a Cranston press.

The Cranston press is a newspaper press built in the late 1800s that was popular with small-town newspapers across the country into the 20th century. Today other functional Cranstons are rare, if not non-existent, and a group of community members wanted to resurrect the old printing press. So they started a nonprofit and began restoring the building and the press to create a space to tell stories through art that reflects the history and culture of the town. They called it the Mancos Common Press.

Vol. 1, No. 1 of the Mancos Times-Tribune from April 28th, 1893 sits propped up on a cabinet that holds letters and symbols that artists now use to make art. (Photo: Ilana Newman)

“People tend to overlook the potential of rural communities as places for artists and for creativity,” said Tami Graham, president of the board and one of the founding members of the Mancos Common Press.

One of the first people to identify the Cranston press was Frank Matero, a professor of Historic Preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. Matero had spent summers working in the Mesa Verde region and saw potential in the old Mancos Times-Tribune building and the then-defunct press. The building and all its contents were donated to the nonprofit by the Ballentine Family, who currently own the Durango Herald and the Cortez Tribune – the main publications for the region.

Matero began a collaboration between Mancos and the University of Pennsylvania, with the additional support of Matt Neff, founder of the Common Press, a letterpress studio at the University of Pennsylvania. Neff helped with the actual restoration of the Cranston press. The old newspaper building was also restored to look exactly like it did in the early 1900s, according to photos, from the tin ceiling to the color of the walls.

In 2019, Mancos Common Press opened its doors as a letterpress studio and arts center. The pandemic threw a wrench in plans to have classes, but in 2021 they finally hosted the first of many Letterpress 101 classes and started building an artist community.

A woman wearing an apron and glasses stands over a workbench, beside a window at Mancos Common Press. On a counter new her sit cans of paint with different labels on them.
Tris Downer, a Mancos Common Press artist, works on carving a lino block for a new printing project inspired by a recent trip she took. (Photo: Ilana Newman)

“Small-town newspapers were incredible in that they were the means of letting people know what’s going on, just like they are today. But also [they would] perpetuate all these stereotypes and the colonization of the West…[the Mancos Common Press] can now be used to tell maybe a different history than was shared at the time,” said Graham.

Artists at Mancos Common Press explore this alternate history in a variety of ways, including a project called Herstory, a collective of women printmakers creating art around underrepresented women in the Four Corners. Another project recently supported by Mancos Common Press featured Rosie Carter, who works at Mancos Common Press, in an art exhibit called buffalo soldiers: reVision. This show examined the complicated legacy of the all-Black army regiment known as Buffalo Soldiers around the West.

Ink sits ready to be mixed and applied to the lino block in the foreground. (Photo: Ilana Newman)

An endeavor like Mancos Common Press fits naturally in Mancos, which is a hotbed for creative development in Southwest Colorado. In 2015, the town became a certified Colorado Creative District, a program under the Colorado Office of Economic Development.

Mancos Creative District has transformed what used to be a quiet downtown with “tumbleweed rolling down the street,” said the Creative District’s Executive Director, Chelsea Lunders. Now, galleries, restaurants, and studios like Mancos Common Press line the handful of blocks that comprise downtown Mancos.

In May 2024, the newest project connected to Mancos Common Press will open its doors. The brand new Mancos Commons is a 3,700 square foot two-story building that will provide a light-filled studio space to expand the Press. New printing presses, a darkroom, and lots of table space will allow for more classes and more artists to use the Mancos Common Press space. Upstairs, three one-bedroom apartments will provide affordable housing for people who currently work in the small town.

“We raised $2.5 million here in maybe, at the most, three years for this project in this tiny little town in western Colorado,” said Graham. Funders included Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, Colorado Division of Housing, El Pomar, and Colorado Creative Industries. Construction began in June 2023 and the building will be available for use in May 2024.

A building with large paned windows bears a sign over the door reading "Mancos Common Press." The windows on either side of the door have a logo reading "Mancos Times Tribune."
The front of the Mancos Common Press Building which still bears the name of its former inhabitants. In the background, construction of the Mancos Commons building is just beginning, in summer of 2023. (Photo: Ilana Newman)

Mancos Common Press brings people from around the region to visit the studio as artists-in-residence or for classes, and they want to continue to be a hub for art and community for the Mountain Southwest. “There’s just so much great potential for this community continuing to grow and evolve in a really sustainable way through arts and culture,” said Graham.

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Q&A: Is Meth Really a Rural Problem?

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

This story is published in collaboration with The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.

William Garriott is an anthropologist who teaches at Drake University and wrote the 2011 book Policing Methamphetamine: Narcopolitics in Rural America. His research features prominently in the Daily Yonder’s new five-part podcast, “Home Cooked.” 

In that series, we’re investigating how meth went from a rural-coded chemical moonshine to an endemic drug problem present in all the nation’s major cities.

Enjoy our conversation about hillbilly stereotypes, urban and suburban meth use, and the concerning recent convergence of the meth and fentanyl supply chains. And if you want to hear more from Garriott, you can listen to “Home Cooked” wherever you get your podcasts. 

William Garriott is Professor and Chair of the Law, Politics, and Society Program at Drake University. His book, Policing Methamphetamine: Narcopolitics in Rural America, was released in 2011 from NYU Press. (Images provided by Garriott)

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: How’d you get interested in methamphetamine as an academic subject?

WG: When I started my PhD in anthropology in 2003, I knew I wanted to focus on the Appalachian region of the United States. At the time, I was curious about religious life in the region and its contribution to the growth of Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism around the world.

But I had also just taken a course with medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman. He says that we should seek to understand “what’s at stake” or “what really matters” for people in their everyday lives. 

And what really mattered to people in places like Eastern Kentucky at the time was drugs. We now know we were at the beginning of the opioid epidemic. OxyContin was already taking a toll on local communities. And there was little national concern because it was seen as an isolated regional problem (the derogatory term “hillbilly heroin” was getting thrown around a lot at the time).

When I started my dissertation research, methamphetamine had become the primary concern, both regionally and nationally. When the PATRIOT Act was reauthorized in 2005, the only significant addition was anti-meth legislation called the Combat Meth Epidemic Act.

DY: In what sense was the meth surge of the 90s and early 2000s a rural phenomenon?

WG: Lots of ways. The internet gave people access to meth recipes, and meth cooks tended to be located in rural areas. It was easier to hide and access key ingredients like anhydrous ammonia. In fact, the number of meth labs grew so quickly that huge swaths of the rural U.S. were labeled High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas – something that had only been applied to cities like New York and Los Angeles before. 

The rural economy was also changing. Jobs weren’t paying as well or were going away altogether. Meth found a niche as a kind of performance enhancement drug for people working long hours at physically demanding jobs – something I saw in the poultry industry in West Virginia and journalist Nick Reding found in the pork industry in Iowa and anthropologist Jason Pine found in general in Missouri. Eventually some folks just left these jobs to work in the meth economy full time.

I think it’s also important to mention how meth was being portrayed in national media as the drug of choice for poor white people. From there it doesn’t take much to connect it to rural communities, given how those communities are often thought of as predominantly white and poor in the public imagination. 

Anti-meth programs like the Montana Meth Project and Faces of Meth played a big part in this. They were very visual campaigns that focused on the damage meth does to the body. All of the people they pictured appeared to be white. They had sores, scars, and sunken eyes. They also were often missing teeth. All of that invokes a lot of stereotypes. Sociologists Travis Linnemann and Tyler Wall have a great journal article on this.

All of that said, it is important to keep in mind that meth is just as much an urban and suburban problem as a rural one, particularly now. Sociologist Miriam Boeri has made this point really clearly. Also, something to keep in mind about Faces of Meth: It was created by a jail deputy in Oregon who used mugshots of people booked into the county jail. The jail is in Portland, so the folks featured probably weren’t living in rural communities at the time.

DY: Your book was called Policing Methamphetamine. I’m curious – what made you zero in on that element of meth culture, its policing? 

WG: When I began my research, I thought my focus would be on the treatment experiences of people who use methamphetamine. But what I quickly found was that those experiences couldn’t be understood outside of the criminal justice system. Many people only got treatment after an arrest, and often as a condition of probation. One officer told me that people came up to him on the street and asked to be taken to jail so they could stop using drugs. Community members also often channeled their concerns into calls for increased enforcement. 

In retrospect, none of this should have been surprising. U.S. drug policy has long focused on enforcement. This puts police and the criminal justice system on the front lines whenever and wherever a new drug problem emerges. There is no exception to this dynamic for rural communities. What’s more, the justice system is likely to be the most visible and well-resourced state institution in the community (which is not to say it is sufficiently resourced).

DY: What are the questions you still have about meth in American life?

Today the most pressing question from my perspective is how meth and opioids are converging. One of the more unfortunate developments is that people have started injecting meth. There is also the broad contamination of the drug supply with fentanyl.

All of this creates additional public health challenges, particularly in rural communities.

Something else I’m thinking about a lot is what happens when drugs like meth stop making headlines and get replaced by the next drug scourge. Today people are much more likely to talk about fentanyl than meth. This is understandable given the overdose risks, as well as the way news media works. But what are the consequences of this for the communities where meth is still a major concern?

Bigger picture, I’m thinking about meth in the broader context of U.S. drug policy. My next book is about marijuana legalization and justice reform. It’s been interesting because the conversation around cannabis is so different from the conversation around meth. One of the big questions I have is if the kinds of reforms that are following cannabis legalization will do anything to change the conversation around the broader punitive approach to drugs. The debate happening right now in Oregon over Measure 110 is something I’m watching very closely. It’s a major test case for whether or not a different, less punitive approach to drugs is possible. 

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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The post Q&A: Is Meth Really a Rural Problem? appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

Trump Wins Michigan with Slightly Greater Support in Rural Areas and Suburbs

Donald Trump won the Michigan primary with widespread support across the state, with slightly higher margins in rural areas and the suburbs of metropolitan areas, according to a Daily Yonder analysis.

The results were a soft echo of former President Trump’s performance in the South Carolina primary on Saturday, in which he polled strongest among suburban and rural voters.

In Michigan, Trump defeated former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley by 3 to 1 (77% to 23%) in the state’s 50 rural (nonmetropolitan) counties. These voters represented 25% of the turnout in Tuesday’s primary.

He did nearly as well in the state’s small metropolitan areas, which include eight counties and 12% of the turnout. Cities in these small metropolitan areas are Battle Creek, Jackson, Midland, Monroe, Muskegon, Saginaw, Bay City, and Nile-Benton Harbor.

Trump also received over 70% of the two-candidate vote in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas (Detroit and Grand Rapids) and medium-sized metropolitan areas (Lansing, Flint, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, and South Bend, Indiana). 

Voters in the Grand Rapids and Detroit metropolitan areas constituted nearly two-thirds of the turnout. Voters in small metropolitan areas were 12% of the electorate on Tuesday.


The Daily Yonder analysis uses the 2013 Office of Management and Budget Metropolitan Statistical Areas to define rural.

  • We define counties that are not located within a metropolitan area as rural. Under the OMB’s 2013 system, nonmetropolitan counties don’t have a city of 50,000 or greater and don’t have close economic ties to a county that does have a city of 50,000 or greater.
  • Major metropolitan suburbs are the outlying counties of metros with a population of over 1 million.
  • Medium-sized metropolitan core counties are the central counties of metros with a population of 250,000 to under 1 million.
  • Medium-sized metropolitan suburbs are the outlying counties of metros with a population of 250,000 to under 1 million. 
  • Small metropolitan areas include all counties in metros of fewer than 250,000 residents.

The post Trump Wins Michigan with Slightly Greater Support in Rural Areas and Suburbs appeared first on The Daily Yonder.