NEWS

Education Dept. to Cut Off Federal Funding for Some Rural Schools

education-dept.-to-cut-off-federal-funding-for-some-rural-schools

A bookkeeping change at the department will cut thousands of dollars in aid to some of the poorest, most isolated schools in the country.

Credit…Megan Jelinger/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Erica L. Green

WASHINGTON — A bookkeeping change at the Education Department will kick hundreds of rural school districts out of a federal program that for nearly two decades has funneled funding to some of the most geographically isolated and cash-strapped schools in the United States.

More than 800 schools stand to lose thousands of dollars from the Rural and Low-Income School Program because the department has abruptly changed how districts are to report how many of their students live in poverty. The change, quietly announced in letters to state education leaders, comes after the Education Department said a review of the program revealed that districts had “erroneously” received funding because they had not met eligibility requirements outlined in the federal education law since 2002.

The department said it would strictly enforce a requirement that in order to get funding, districts must use data from the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates to determine whether 20 percent of their area’s school-age children live below the poverty line.

For about 17 years, the department has allowed schools to use the percentage of students who qualify for federally subsidized free and reduced-price meals, a common proxy for school poverty rates, because census data can miss residents in rural areas. Lawmakers have called on the Education Department to reverse its decision and instead keep using the meals data.

Department officials said they were surprised to find out that the law had not been followed for more than a decade, and agreed that census data was not the right metric to determine eligibility for the program.

Liz Hill, an Education Department spokeswoman, said the department “has drafted the legislative fix needed to use a free-and-reduced-lunch funding formula.”

“When you discover you’re not following the law Congress wrote, you don’t double down, you fix it,” Ms. Hill said. “If that’s what’s Congress wants, Congress should pass it, and the Education Department will happily implement it. We will also continue to look for ways to help ensure students are not unnecessarily harmed.”

The department’s notifications rattled rural districts, which have come to rely on the program to supplement the costs of services that are far less accessible to rural students, like technology, mental health and guidance counselors, and full-day kindergarten.

Congress created the Rural Education Achievement Program, recognizing that rural schools lacked the resources to compete with their urban and suburban counterparts for competitive grants. The program is the only dedicated federal funding stream for rural school districts, lawmakers said.

“Rural districts have budgeted for these resources, and the administration has given no consideration to how they will be impacted by this immediate cut to their funding,” said Sasha Pudelski, the advocacy director at AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

In Oklahoma, which will see the number of eligible schools cut nearly in half, Matt Holder, the superintendent of Sulphur Public Schools, said the $30,000 cut to his 1,500-student district would cost him a reading specialist in his elementary school.

In a district where 60 percent of students live in poverty, literacy is a ladder to opportunity, he said. “It’s important for us to have someone on staff to work with these students and get them where they need to be,” Mr. Holder said. “I feel like we’re cutting from the most vulnerable.”

Chuck McCauley, the superintendent of the 6,000-student Bartlesville Public Schools in Oklahoma, said the district has tapped more than $100,000 per year for the past three years from the program to equip its students and teachers with computers.

“We started the technology initiative because we really needed to level the playing field for them in their next steps,” he said. “Without those funds, we would not be where we are today.”

The department’s decision to change the eligibility rules drew swift, bipartisan condemnation.

In a letter this month to Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said her state would lose $1.2 million under the change.

Ms. Collins, an author of the Rural Education Achievement Program, said that the Education Department’s move undermined the program. The fact that 100 of the 149 schools in Maine that qualified last year would lose funding this year under the census criteria speaks to the shortcomings of relying solely on census data, she said.

“If this decision is not reversed,” Ms. Collins wrote, “the department risks denying thousands of students living in rural Maine the chance to reach their full potentials.”

Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, wrote that 220 of his state’s most remote, impoverished school districts would take a $400,000 cut from the change.

“The department should be focusing on elevating school districts with the fewest resources instead of punishing small schools with harmful, last-minute policy changes,” Mr. Tester wrote.

Rural school districts, which serve nearly one in seven public-school students, have long included the most underfunded and ignored schools in the country, advocates say.

In its latest report, “Why Rural Matters,” the Rural School and Community Trust found that many districts “face nothing less than an emergency.” Nearly one in six students living in rural areas lives below the poverty line, one in seven qualifies for special education services, and one in nine has changed residence in the previous 12 months, the report said.

“Many rural students are largely invisible to state policymakers because they live in states where education policy is dominated by highly visible urban problems,” the nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group concluded.

Advocates were hoping that would change with President Trump.

“Rural education advocates definitely hoped that a president elected, in part, because of rural and small-town voters would pay more attention to rural children,” said Alan Richard, a board member of the Rural School and Community Trust. “Even after the last election, with all the attention to rural America, little has been done to correct the inequity so many rural students face.”

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