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Federal Report Criticized for Proposing Broader Definition of 'Rural'

Rural communities with 20,000 residents or less have benefited from new school buildings as part of the federal Community Facilities Program, but that could be changing.

A new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has suggested that "rural" be defined as a population in an area with less than 50,000 residents, and that would be the eligibility standard for its Rural Development programs.

It would make more communities eligible for funding, and the department said simplifying eligibility factors would help streamline the program's implementation and provide a more transparent process.

"Having a 50,000-population limit for all programs would remove confusion over what constitutes a rural area and would encourage more multijurisdictional collaboration," according to the report.

But some rural advocates say the new proposal would put the most rural areas at a disadvantage.

"This will result in smaller communities competing with larger and more urban areas for funding," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., in a joint statement.

They applauded the department for doing the report but said they were disappointed in the recommendation to shift funding away from the most rural areas.

Different government agencies use varying definitions for rural, and this wouldn't affect the one used by the U.S. Department of Education. That department defines "small rural schools" as those eligible to participate in the Small Rural School Achievement program. "Rural," to the Education Department, means districts with average daily attendance of fewer than 600 students, or districts in which all schools are located in counties with a population density of fewer than 10 persons per square mile and all of its schools are in rural areas.

Still, rural communities have been able to apply for loans, grants, or loan guarantees from the federal Community Facilities Program, which covers areas such as education. For example, MOT Charter School in Middletown, Del., didn't have a full-sized gymnasium for competitive sports or physical education classes, but the program gave the school money to build one, as well as a bigger library and two extra classrooms.

The Daily Yonder, a rural-focused online news service, has been all over this issue and plans to run a series of editorial responses in coming weeks.

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