Restore funding to poor rural schools

Feb 27, 2020

In response to the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to cut $1.2 million from Maine’s rural, low-income schools made available through the Rural Education Achievement Program, U.S. Sens. Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King and Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden sent a letter Feb. 21 to Secretary Betsy DeVos urging her to restore the funding.

We add our voice to those of our federal representatives to urge DeVos to allow Maine to measure school district poverty as it has done for many years, even if a new system of measurement must be phased in over a few years.

The full text of the letter to DeVos follows:

We are writing to express our strong opposition to the decision by the Department of Education to alter the eligibility determination of the Rural Low-Income Schools Program (RLIS) this year. This change in methodology, implemented without consultation or prior notice, will reduce significantly the number of Maine school districts eligible to receive funding under the RLIS program and result in a $1.2 million reduction in funding. We are deeply concerned about the significant and sudden financial strain that this change will impose on Maine's rural schools and students and urge the Department to prevent these cuts from taking effect.

The Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP), authored by Senator Susan Collins and former Senator Kent Conrad, is designed to help level the playing field for rural school systems. Its two grant programs — the Small Rural School Achievement Program and the RLIS — provide additional funding and flexibility to help rural schools overcome the unique challenges posed by geographic isolation. For 16 years, the Department of Education has measured Maine's school district poverty levels by the percentage of students receiving free lunch. Last year, Maine received approximately $1.6 million in RLIS funding to serve students in those high poverty schools. This year, however, the Department has decided it will no longer accept this measurement and will rely solely on the Census Bureau's Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) data. This abrupt change undermines the flexible purpose of the law. It will eliminate more than 100 Maine schools from RLIS eligibility and result in a staggering $1.2 million funding reduction. That difference in school eligibility alone makes clear that the SAIPE data is inadequate. Such a sudden and unexpected change will greatly hinder the ability of Maine's rural schools to educate students and improve their academic achievement in this next school year.

We particularly object to the Department's decision to implement this change in methodology with respect to this current year's appropriated funding without prior notice or any option for adjustment. Those schools that have rightly relied on RLIS support in the past will face drastic cuts to curricula and resources.

We urge you to use all possible interim measures and authorities to prevent cuts to the RLIS program in Maine, and to continue to provide the eligibility flexibility on which the state has relied for years. We look forward to working with you on this important issue and request an immediate response.

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