Sidney Herald: Sen. Tester Pushes reversal on rural school funding

After U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed changes that could have caused as many as 220 Montana schools to lose more than $400,000, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester stated: “I’m going to keep working on a permanent fix to this reckless decision.”

Apparently, Sen. Tester’s words had an impact. DeVos released a follow-up statement shortly thereafter. She is delaying for one year her decision to change eligibility for rural schools receiving federal funding through the Rural Low-Income Schools (RLIS) program.

“This delay is a good thing, but frankly, Secretary DeVos’ crocodile tears are not going to cut it,” said Tester. “Time and time again, Secretary DeVos has shown a complete disregard for the needs of rural schools and Montana students-and we’re going to do something about it. I’m going to keep working on a permanent fix to this reckless decision so that Montana kids have the resources they need to thrive this year, next year and beyond.”

Tester blasted the decision last week in a letter to Secretary DeVos and announced legislation to reverse the arbitrary decision.

The Education Department’s proposed change would have caused an estimated 65 percent decrease in eligibility in Montana, one of the highest rates in the nation, and would have caused as many as 220 Montana schools to lose more than $400,000 in RLIS funds.

Montana schools have previously used data on free and reduced school lunches to qualify for the RLIS program, which aims to improve student achievement by distributing funds to schools and local education agencies that may lack the personnel and resources to compete for federal grants.

However, the proposed change – which would have reversed 20 years of precedent – meant that the Department of Education would no longer accept alternative poverty counts like school lunch data to determine eligibility for RLIS funds. Instead, it would only allow states to use the outdated and inaccurate Small Area Income and Poverty Estimate data from the Bureau of Census, severely reducing the number of schools in Montana that receive support.

This week, Tester also sent a second, bipartisan letter to Secretary DeVos with 20 of his colleagues urging her again to reverse her arbitrary decision.

“The Department’s decision has created a funding cliff for hundreds of rural, low-income schools that are already balancing tight budgets,” the Senators wrote. “[This funding] helps deliver an equitable and enriching education to thousands of students living in rural America. We strongly encourage you to rescind this new interpretation and to work with Congress to serve students in rural communities.”

As a former educator in his hometown of Big Sandy, Tester has been a leader in providing Montana kids with the tools they need to get a quality education, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

Last month, he secured $1 million for the Kootenai Valley Head Start Program, and, in recent budget negotiations, he fought to include $10 billion for Head Start programs nationwide – a $550 million increase from the previous year. He also introduced his NEST and REST Acts last year, which work to address widespread teacher shortages that impact Indian Country and rural communities across the country.