Editor’s Note: This column was written by Kathy Zahler, president of TST BOCES and Director of Communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee. She often writes about the nexus of education and politics on her blog, Dryden Daily KAZ.

To submit a guest column, contact me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

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I learned a handful of surprising-to-me things at this year’s Rural School Conference.

1) Over four years, the tax cap has cut voter turnout at school elections by 30 percent. This is from Tim Kremer of the NYSSBA. It’s maybe not that surprising—the usual “no” voters probably feel they can stay home because the school budget increase is predictable. However, when you consider that the budget election is also the school board election, this pitiful decline in what was already a sad figure means that if you run for school board on a particular wedge issue and can get a handful of friends to turn out, you can win.

Despite the horrendous participation rate, NYS voters still rate education their #2 issue. This one came from Steve Greenberg of Siena Research. I guess education’s important, but not important enough to do anything about.

2) After federal sequestration in 2013 killed Head Start in Dolgeville, 1/5 of entering students tested as high risk on their kindergarten screenings. The loss of Head Start is compounded by the loss statewide of Even Start, which provided parenting, financial, and navigating-the-system skills for adults in poverty.

3) Out of 155 districts classified as high-need/rural, only one, Beaver River, received a rating of “Reward” (high-achieving) in 2013-14. Reward districts show growth, good graduation rates, including for at-risk students, annual yearly progress, etc. That’s just not happening for high-need/rural schools. Beaver River is lucky enough to contain a military base, giving it an unusual demographic that probably propels its stats upward.

4) Within a school population of 2,400, Fulton, NY, has a shocking number of homeless/abandoned students (over 100). This contributes to the district’s below-average 65 percent graduation rate. In case you think homelessness is strictly a big-city problem, we’re talking about a small metropolis of around 12,000.

5) Despite upstate NY’s aspirations to be a center of high-tech or other industry, our levels of highly-educated workers are dismal compared to most of the Northeast. John Sipple of RSA used a lovely map to demonstrate; sadly I can’t duplicate it here. The census reports that the nationwide percent of citizens age 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree or higher topped 30 percent in 2011. In upstate NY, we have large swatches of 0-24% with isolated pockets above that level. Ithaca is over 50 percent, making it close to unique in all of the state. Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hamsphire, and even southern Maine are better educated than we are. Think about that the next time you’re arguing for a high-tech zone in the Southern Tier.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.