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Rural Ed. Advocate Criticizes President's Proposed Budget for Rural Schools

A rural education advocate says the president's proposed 2014 budget is lacking needed support for rural schools, but a federal spokesman calls her analysis fairly narrow and incomplete.

The critic is Caitlin Howley, who works as associate director of the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center and has nearly 20 years of experience leading research and evaluating programs.

She wrote a piece for a rural news website, the Daily Yonder, in which she said the president's budget proposal does little to address the challenges faced by rural schools, which have smaller and ofter poorer tax bases, high transportation costs, and stretched-thin staff who have multiple jobs.

John White, deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach for the U.S. Department of Education, said a two-page document Howley referenced highlighting funding for rural schools is only one piece of the president's overall budget request. His full proposal includes other provisions that should be of interest to rural schools, such as initiatives in preschool education, college affordability, school safety, and K-12 reforms.

Howley gave specific examples in her critique, such as the Rural Education Achievement Program. Although the program helps many rural districts, the budget doesn't enable it to be more effective, such as increasing the number of students districts can serve and still be eligible for the funding, she said.

"Many rural districts, especially in the Southeast, are county-wide and as a result exceed the attendance threshold, despite facing the same rural challenges as their smaller counterparts," she writes.

In response, White said REAP was designed to help small rural schools, so increasing the number of students served wouldn't seem to support the intent of the program. And the president's administration has proposed expanding the REAP flexibility provision that allows eligible districts to combine funding under certain programs, he said.

Another issue Howley discussed was the rural-focused budget requests for competitive grants, such as the new High School Redesign competition and increased funding for School Turnaround Grants. She said federal officials needed to provide help through other agencies to boost rural communities economic opportunities. If not, better-prepared rural high school graduates still will leave for opportunities elsewhere.

White countered by pointing out ways in which the president's budget calls for the education department to work with other agencies, such as the Community College to Career Fund, which aims to put more resources into job training programs at community colleges, and the Promise Zone initiative, which is a comprehensive strategy to neighborhood revitalization.

Howley's piece also talked about the problem with competitive funding for rural schools generally, which is that rural schools need support to be able to compete with larger districts with more resources. If the aim truly was to help rural schools support students, "funding would be distributed based on need rather than the ability to submit a great proposal," she wrote.

White said Howley's list of competitive priorities to rural areas was incomplete and left out the Race to the Top District competition. That competition's rural winner, Green River Regional Education Cooperative, is serving more than 20 rural districts in Kentucky and accounts for more than 40 percent of all districts benefiting from the competition, he said.

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