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Rural Schools Cry Foul Over DeVos' Change to Achievement Program Criteria

A change in the U.S. Department of Education's interpretation of how to distribute funds for a federal rural schools program based on poverty is resulting in hundreds of districts receiving significantly less funding this year, according to the AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

The change prompted a letter on Feb. 14 from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who said more than 100 schools in her state will lose funding from the program because of a $1.2 million drop funds from the department.

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

In years past, the department distributed a part of the Rural Education Achievement Program funds for poor communities based on the percentage of students who qualify for free of reduced-priced lunch, which is often used as a proxy for low-income families.  The department this year is using U.S. Census Bureau data on families in poverty instead which doesn't necessarily capture the same set of families.  Several states in recent weeks have received letters from the department notifying them of the change and that they will get less money they did than last year.

The REAP fund is a special program that Congress created in 2002 under the No Child Left Behind Act to help rural districts that can't compete for federal grants. Grants often require lots of paperwork for which rural districts don't have the staff to fill out.

When the Every Student Succeeds Act was being crafted as NCLB's successor, advocates sought to seal in as part of the the REAP formula that dollars would be distributed based on the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. That effort failed. The criteria currently reads that the funds should be distributed based on "the percentage of children from families with incomes below the poverty line." 

Sasha Pudelski, an advocacy director for AASA, questioned why the department made the change.

"This has been the practice up until this year and now they're saying, 'Sorry, our hands are tied, we can't do this anymore," Pudeleski said. "Why would they magically overturn 20 years of precedent here in distributing funding to states?"

AASA is still attempting to determine how many districts across the nation are being impacted, Pudeleski said. 

Angela Morabito, a spokesperson for the department said in an e-mail that the formula has been in place for more than a decade and that they are reviewing Sen. Collins' concerns. "...We take seriously our commitment to ensuring every student is counted and appropriately supported."

There's a long-standing debate among policymakers about what's the best indicator to determine how poor a district's student body is. That debate has flared again in recent years as more districts started qualifying all their students free and/or reduced price lunch as part of an effort to expand the meal program. 

In Maine, district administrators told Maine's public radio station that they have relied on the unrestrictive and noncompetitive REAP program to pay for technology, art and physical education teachers, and mental health counselors.

Mitchell Look, the curriculum coordinator for AOS 96 in the Machias, Maine, told the station the program helped pay for programs such as physical education, music, and art . "Now, if you're going to keep those programs, which you need to do, you're going to have to get it out of the local budget, which is already strapped as it is. So that's certainly going to hurt."

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