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Rural Advocates Divided on Senate's ESEA Revision

The Senate education committee's plan to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act faces a number of political obstacles before it's approved, and rural education advocates aren't united on whether the proposal goes far enough in addressing the needs of their students.

The committee last week approved its version of a bill to overhaul of the country's main K-12 accountability law, now known as the No Child Left Behind Act, and some lawmakers hope to get it approved before Christmas, though a hearing and floor debate still looms.

Marty Strange, the policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust, criticized several parts of the bill approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. He said the bill would put rural schools at a disadvantage by failing to:

• Change the Title 1 funding formula in a way to correct what advocates say are in inequities that hurt rural districts;

• Ensure that competitive programs such as Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation truly benefit rural schools in the way they award money. Strange said the legislation would invite the token inclusion of rural schools among Race to the Top applicants, and took issue with the ambiguity surrounding the i3 funding set-aside for rural schools.

• Come up with a way of dealing with the nation's lowest-performing schools that avoids leaving them with the stigma of failure. He said the proposed law could make it more difficult for struggling districts to replace teachers and leaders, and it will be an "especially heavy burden for rural districts that face so many other competitive disadvantages in these personnel markets."

"The bill's greatest shortcoming is that it includes no provision eliminating or reducing the onerous effects of the number-weighting system in the Targeted and Education Finance Incentive Grant programs under Title I," Strange said. "Small, high-poverty rural districts are systematically discriminated against by this provision."

The Rural Trust has been at the forefront of the push to change the distribution formula, which it says gives more federal dollars to low-income students in larger, more-affluent districts than it does for similar students in smaller districts. The Formula Fairness Campaign has garnered a number of supporters.

Still, another group advocating for rural students had a different view of the rewrite, saying the changes would be a "landmark victory" for current and future generations of rural children.

"The bill, while not perfect, is definitely a step in the right direction and is pretty much unprecedented in its regard for rural education," said Jennifer Kaleba, the communications director for Save the Children. Her organization works to break the cycle of poverty by ensuring children have the resources they need, such as access to a quality education.

They championed the legislation because it would:

• Set aside i3 funds for low-income rural schools, the same provision criticized by Strange for its fuzziness. Save the Children contends that if this had been in place in 2009, more than $100 million would have gone to rural schools versus the little, if any, that has gone there so far.

• Eliminate Adequate Yearly Progress, to which Strange also said "good riddance".

• Increase the effectiveness of Rural Education Achievement Program funds by allowing more schools to qualify and giving states more flexibility in how the grants are applied.

We'll keep tabs on this legislation as it makes its way through the political process.

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