Education Department changing eligibility for hundreds of rural school districts receiving aid: report

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More than 800 schools receiving federal funds under the Rural and Low-Income School Program could become ineligible due to a sudden change in bookkeeping, The New York Times reported Friday

The funding helps sustain schools in geographically isolated areas with fewer local funding opportunities. The change was reportedly announced through letters to education leaders from the Education Department.

According to the Times, the letter said an audit of the program showed that districts had “erroneously” received funding when they had not met eligibility requirements outlined in the federal education law since 2002.

The Education Department argued that schools were not using the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates to determine if at least 20 percent of the students at their schools were below the poverty line. 

Instead, schools used a percentage of students who qualified for subsidized school lunches, which the Times noted follows the same guidelines for determining if a student is living under the poverty line, and is better than the Census at ensuring each student attending the district is counted. 

The Education Department has allowed this form of reporting in the past 17 years since the laws governing who qualifies for these funds were created.

The Department of Education did not immediately respond to an inquiry from The Hill. 

Liz Hill, an Education Department spokeswoman, told the Times the department is working on a legislative remedy that would create a “free-and-reduced-lunch funding formula.”

“When you discover you’re not following the law Congress wrote, you don’t double down; you fix it,” Hill told the Times. “If that’s what Congress wants, Congress should pass it, and the Education Department will happily implement it. We will also continue to look for ways to help ensure students are not unnecessarily harmed.”

An official for the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee told the Times that Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tenn.) is working quickly to “solve this problem for hundreds of rural schools around the country.”

The change comes less than a month after the Department of Education cut funding for the Rural Education Achievement Program, a fund created by Congress to assist rural schools. 

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) wrote a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos earlier this month opposing the change, which would cut $1.2 million from schools in her state.

“If this decision is not reversed,” Collins wrote, “the department risks denying thousands of students living in rural Maine the chance to reach their full potentials.”

Tags Betsy DeVos Betsy DeVos Education Lamar Smith reduced-cost lunches Rural and Low-Income School Program Susan Collins
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