Tester Announces Legislation to Preserve Funding for 220 Rural Montana Schools After ‘reckless’ Department of Education Decision

Department of Education arbitrary decision to change rural school funding will cause 65 percent drop in eligibility in Montana Senator: “This change won’t do a thing but hurt Montana kids and rural schools”

U.S. Senator Jon Tester today announced he will introduce legislation to reverse an arbitrary decision by the U.S. Department of Education to change eligibility for rural schools receiving federal funding through the Rural Low-Income Schools (RLIS) program. The change will cause an estimated 65 percent decrease in eligibility in Montana, one of the highest rates in the nation, and will cause as many as 220 Montana schools to lose more than $400,000 in RLIS funds.

“The Department of Education is supposed to promote student achievement across our country, but you wouldn’t know it from Betsy DeVos’s contempt for the wellbeing of kids in rural America,” said Tester. “This change won’t do a thing but hurt Montana kids and rural schools that already work twice as hard for half the resources as schools in urban areas. That’s why I’m introducing legislation that would immediately reverse Secretary DeVos’s reckless decision.”

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 Instead, it will only allow states to use the outdated Small Area Income and Poverty Estimate data from the Bureau of Census, severely reducing the number of schools in Montana that receive support.

Tester’s legislation would reverse the Department’s change and reinstate RLIS availability based on alternative measures like free and reduced school lunch program eligibility. RLIS funding is critical to making sure that school districts of all sizes are eligible and competitive for federal grant funding to support programs like afterschool activities, student supports, and professional development for educators.

In addition to announcing legislation, Tester sent a letter to Secretary DeVos today blasting her decision to arbitrarily change eligibility for rural schools.

“It comes as no shock to anyone who is familiar with frontier America to know that Montana’s most isolated, smallest schools are those that struggle the most to recruit and retain quality educators,” Tester wrote. “Geographic isolation, lack of career advancement opportunities, and low pay only exacerbate these challenges. The absolute last thing that the Department of Education should be doing is taking resources and opportunities away from these schools. I ask that you immediately rectify this situation and allow school districts to submit the data they have been submitting for nearly 20 years. Montana students and students across rural America deserve more than an arbitrary bureaucratic decision in Washington.”

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.

Read Tester’s full letter to DeVos HERE.