This Op-Ed appeared in today’s Tennessean.

The recession has hit hard in rural Tennessee. While statewide unemployment hovers at 9.7 percent, in the past year a few of our rural counties have faced jobless rates near 20 percent. Additionally, rural poverty in Tennessee is well above the national median.

In today’s global economy, Bell Buckle is competing with Shanghai for the jobs of the future. The question is: What can rural communities do to improve their economic outlook and ensure job opportunities and success for their citizens?

It all boils down to public education. Strategies to improve K-12 schools and boost student achievement are the key to building thriving communities. And improvement can’t stop with high school. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing occupations in Tennessee require some form of postsecondary education.

Having an educated, skilled and productive workforce will make it more likely that a new company will invest in Tennessee or an existing business will choose to expand its presence in our state. Yet, the connection between education and rural economic health has not received the attention it deserves.

One-third of Tennessee’s K-12 students attend schools in rural communities. These schools face different challenges than those in Nashville, Memphis or Knoxville. Rural teacher salaries in Tennessee are among the lowest in the U.S. Teachers may teach many subjects across multiple grade levels, making it difficult to specialize in one area. Students in rural communities often lack access to resources and organizations to help them overcome the barriers associated with poverty.

To ensure rural communities have a skilled workforce, we must find innovative education strategies that speak to the unique needs of these communities. For example, rural schools need more flexibility to provide distance and online learning so that students always have access to high-quality, advanced coursework. Recruiting and retaining great teachers needs to be a priority in hard-to-staff rural school systems — including offering incentives to teach, providing high-quality professional development, and creating a pipeline of effective educators through partnerships with nearby colleges and universities.

Because the success of rural schools and their communities are inextricably linked, community support is vital. This means building and expanding current partnerships between rural schools and local businesses, forging stronger connections with higher education, mobilizing nonprofits to engage parents and families, and encouraging philanthropic investment. Above all, business and community leaders must keep sounding the alarm that a high school diploma and postsecondary training are critical to individual and community prosperity.

Finally, innovation in rural education means identifying best practices and replicating them — a task we hope will get under way at the Southeast Regional Rural Education Summit, hosted by SCORE and our partner organizations, today and tomorrow at Lipscomb University in Nashville. The summit will bring together rural educators, administrators and policymakers to influence state, regional, and national policies on rural education.

Education reform is a hot topic in Tennessee and across the U.S. In rural communities, improvement is especially important. Our state’s economic future and quality of life depends on it.