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Future uncertain for rural school funding program

Michael Smith
msmith@ardmoreite.com
President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during a roundtable discussion in 2018. While the education department says language to fix a federal program to help rural schools has been sent to Congress, a White House budget proposal looks to absorb that program into a larger block grant program.

Federal education officials have temporarily backed off enforcing a rule change that would have cut federal funding to some rural schools this year, but the program in question may soon be transformed. Even if the Rural Low-Income Schools program is updated by Congress, a recent White House budget request could absorb it into a larger block grant program and nullify any changes.

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos last Wednesday concluded that states and districts will be allowed to use alternative reporting methods for local poverty rates for another year. A department spokesperson said DeVos came to the conclusion considering a 17-year reliance on those alternative reporting methods.

The spokesperson said that language to permanently allow alternative reporting methods has been forwarded to Congress but did not provide a copy of that language upon request.

The department’s decision to delay the rule change by a year comes after a bipartisan letter from senators last Wednesday urged DeVos to reconsider.

“According to the Department’s own projections, this change, which is being implemented without notice to Congress and after funding for fiscal year 2020 has already been appropriated, is expected to exclude more than 800 rural, low-income schools from eligibility nationwide this year,” read a bipartisan letter signed by 21 senators last week.

Lawmakers hailed the department’s reversal as a win but challenges remain. For the program to survive another year, Congress still must both address the White House budget request and legislation to allow the department to use alternative reporting methods.

THE RURAL LOW-INCOME SCHOOLS PROGRAM

The RLIS program started in 2002 as a way to provide federal funds to school districts that serve a student body with 20% or more living below the poverty line. Federal law regarding the program says the local poverty data provided by states must come from U.S. Census Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates.

Guidance issued by the DOE a year after the law was implemented allows states to use alternative data, like free or reduced lunch eligibility, if Census data is incomplete. States are awarded the money each fiscal year which is then distributed to school districts, and laws restrict how the money can be used by districts.

Currently the program is administered under the Rural Education Achievement Program and is the only dedicated federal funding stream for rural schools, according to lawmakers. The program is expected to provide nearly $93 million to schools nationwide this year.

Federal budget information says Oklahoma received $4.7 million in RLIS funds in 2019 and is estimated to receive nearly $4.9 million in 2020. According to information from the Oklahoma State Department of Education, 144 school districts in Oklahoma are eligible for RLIS grant money this fiscal year.

UNEXPECTED RULE CHANGE

When Oklahoma education officials were notified by the DOE in January, they were told that alternative poverty data would no longer be allowed unless Census information was completely unavailable. A DOE spokesperson on Thursday said that the change was simply an effort to align the program with laws written by Congress, but concerns from states prompted the department last week to delay the new enforcement.

Among those concerns was a letter from state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister to DeVos and Oklahoma’s congressional delegation early last week. The letter warned that 62 school systems receiving money from the RLIS program would lose funding this year under the rule change. Hofmeister said rural local education agencies, or school districts, will have to drop services if RLIS funds are lost.

“These LEAs do not often participate in competitive grants due to a lack of resources and capacity,” Hofmeister said.

Three Carter County school districts were threatened with losing those federal dollars with the rule change. Plainview, Lone Grove, and Dickson school systems are still at risk of losing future RLIS program funding if a fix for the rule change is not approved by Congress. These schools rely on the alternative reporting methods allowed by the 2003 DOE guidance.

DETERMINING WHAT DATA TO USE

According to state Superintendent of Finance and Federal Programs Monty Guthrie, data collected directly from students’ parents is more accurate than census estimates.

“School districts may be smaller or larger than the geographical regions in which they census information is being estimated,” Guthrie said in a Monday statement.

According to the New York Times, which originally reported the rule change in late February, Sulphur Public Schools was faced with losing $30,000 and a reading specialist at the elementary school if the rule change was implemented. Hofmeister warned that rural Oklahoma schools would lose $1 million in funding.

Lone Grove Public Schools Superintendent Meri Jayne Miller said her district also receives about $30,000 per year in RLIS funds. She said those funds were already considered in the district’s budget when she was notified of the rule change and are important to keep smart boards in all Lone Grove classrooms updated.

Lone Grove relies on data collected for free and reduced lunches when reporting district poverty data. When she was informed about the potential rule change, Miller said it was suggested the district push more families to submit community surveys that are used to compile the U.S. Census Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates.

“If there is something that we need to do as a district to help educate and spread some knowledge, we’ll be glad to do that if we know,” she said on Monday.

Concern from districts and states prompted action from a group of senators led by Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Sen. Margaret Hassan. The pair recruited 19 of their colleagues, including Sens. James Lankford and Jim Inhofe, to sign a letter urging the department to reconsider. The letter also challenged the department’s handling of the proposed rule change.

“We are also alarmed that the Department did not provide Congress, states, and school districts with any notice about its decision to use a new methodology prior to or along with submitting its budget request for REAP in FY 2020,” the Wednesday letter stated.

UNCLEAR FUTURE

The rule change would only affect school districts that do not use annual census estimates to report poverty rates. For districts like Ardmore City Schools, census data shows more than 27% of Ardmore students live below the poverty line. According to school officials, this year’s $56,790 allocation of RLIS funds would not have been impacted by the proposed rule change.

Regardless of what data is used by school districts and states to report poverty rates, the RLIS program may not survive upcoming federal budget talks. According to President Donald Trump’s budget request for FY 2021, 29 education programs, including the RLIS program, are at risk of being absorbed into a larger block grant program.

The proposal says that the consolidation would reduce the federal role in education and allow the DOE to reduce administrative costs over time and save about $4.7 billion. The proposed Elementary and Secondary Education for the Disadvantaged Block Grant program replaces the programs for being “narrowly focused,” according to the budget request.

“The new program would give States and school districts the flexibility to better meet the needs of their students and families, eliminating federal intrusion into state and local education systems,” reads the budget request.

The DOE supports the White House budget request and believes federal dollars will still flow to RLIS schools if the program is absorbed into a larger block grant program, according to a Monday statement.

Oklahoma education officials are aware of the White House budget request that could fundamentally change the RLIS program. Guthrie said that the state education department will work with lawmakers to protect federal funding for rural schools.

“There was a considerable bi-partisan effort to protect rural education funding this year, and we expect those same legislators to continue to stand up for our children in the future,” Guthrie said.