Fed funding tweak could impact students in five Virginia localities

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A change in a Department of Education funding formula could impact students in five Virginia localities.

U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine sent a letter with a bipartisan group of senators expressing their opposition to the move, which impacts which rural schools are eligible for funding through the Rural Low-Income Schools program.

In fiscal year 2019, 40 Virginia localities received just more than $2 million in RLIS grants. As a result of the DOE’s change, five Virginia localities could lose their grants this fiscal year: Buena Vista City, Carroll County, Page County, Patrick County, and Surry County.

These five grants totaled about $270,000 last year, roughly 13 percent of Virginia’s overall allocation.

“Since 2002, rural schools across the nation have relied on these additional flexible funds to purchase supplies and make technology upgrades; expand curricular offerings, such as in reading, physical education, music, and art; provide distance learning opportunities; fund transportation; and support professional development activities. Without any chance to prepare, this abrupt change in RLIS eligibility will force many rural schools districts to forgo essential activities and services,” the senators wrote in the letter.

The Rural Education Achievement Program is the only dedicated federal funding stream to help rural school districts. It consists of two programs – the RLIS program and the Small, Rural School Achievement (SRSA) program. The grants are intended to improve student achievement and can include things like parental involvement activities, teacher preparation, language instruction for English-language learners, and bullying prevention.

Many states have qualified for RLIS because the Department of Education has allowed school districts to measure poverty by the percentage of students receiving federally subsidized free and reduced-price meals. Although free lunch data is an important measure of poverty for rural districts, this year, the Department decided that it will no longer allow states to use this data to determine eligibility for the RLIS program.

This change places RLIS grantees in jeopardy and will put additional strain on the SRSA program. School districts that, previously, may have been eligible to choose either SRSA or RLIS may find themselves only eligible for SRSA, which is likely to reduce the value of awards in that crucial program.

“The Department’s decision has created a funding cliff for hundreds of rural, low-income schools that are already balancing tight budgets,” the letter continued. “REAP 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.”

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