Billings Gazette: Feds to cut $400,000 from rural school grant program in Montana, $5.4 million nationwide

by Matt Hoffman

Montana will likely lose $400,000 from a federal program that provides aid to rural schools serving students from low-income families this school year because of changes made by the Department of Education.

The Rural Low-Income Schools program provides money for schools under the broad guideline of improving student achievement. The money comes in addition to Montana’s regular funding system.

“Schools would decide, well, we normally couldn’t do that on our own, so we’ll use these funds to do that,” said Montana Rural Education Association director Dennis Parman. The could include things like after-school programs, or extra academic support for students.

A spreadsheet provided to Parman by the National Rural Education Association shows that nationwide the program lost $5.4 million. Some states have modest increases, but most saw less money. Funds are labeled for the 2020 fiscal year, and are distributed on July 1, 2020.

Montana could lose more than half of the $798,000 it got for the 2019 fiscal year, but other states were hit harder; Iowa lost 245% of its funding, about $256,000; Maine lost 264% of its funding, about $1.1 million; New Hampshire lost 770% of its funding, about $642,000.

Regionally, Wyoming and the Dakotas received small increases in funding. However, the program isn’t as widely used in those states, which combined for about $324,000 in funding during the 2019 fiscal year.

Idaho lost 144% of its funding, about $200,000.

The Department of Education website for the grant has a link to the FY 2020 grant allocations, but the link does not work.

Under the changes, the program would no longer use free and reduced lunch eligibility as a measure for how much money schools qualify for. Instead, it would use census data. In an email to state education officials, the department argued that statutory language in the Every Student Succeeds Act required the use of census data.

Parman learned of the changes last week through the national advocacy group.

“We just don’t have a sense of what tipped this decision,” he said, though the group has gotten the impression the move isn’t likely to change.

The change doesn’t appear to have attracted widespread attention, though Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester blasted the move in a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on Wednesday.

“I urge you to immediately reverse course on this misguided Washington D.C., decision to alter eligibility requirement for RLIS and refocus on helping small rural schools,” he wrote.

Tester also announced that he intends to introduce legislation that would reverse the change.

At least one other Senator, Maine Republican Susan Collins, has also criticized the change. A spokesman for Tester said staffers for the two lawmakers have been “in close touch” about the issue.

Office of Public Instruction spokesman Dylan Klapmeier said officials have contacted Montana schools that will lose funding and are “definitely concerned.”

“It seems like it is a legal interpretation between the department and Congress,” he said. Assuming that the department’s interpretation is correct, “it seems like it’s an issue that Congress needs to update.”

This isn’t the first time the grant allocations have bounced around.

Montana schools saw a significant increase in the grant money for the 2018-19 school year. Montana had received $491,000 and $440,000 in the preceding two school years before.

Several states saw significant shifts during that time period, both up and down. The total federal allocation barely changed, from $89.2 million to $89.5 million.

Havre had it
According to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, six elementary school districts will have their funding zeroed out: Havre, Butte, Anaconda, Columbia Falls, Polson, and Evergreen.

More districts are likely affected, as 230 will be eligible for the grant funding, according to the Office of Public Instruction.

“We use every dollar of federal programming that we can,” superintendent Andy Carlson said.

And if that money dries up?

“You do without.”