Federal Funding Controversy Around the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP)

There is currently a bit of controversy around the US Department of Education (REAP) and one of its programs for funding rural school districts across the country. You may be less familiar with Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP) (Part B of Title VI of ESEA) because it is a relatively small program. In summary, the REAP is intended to provide needed resources to poor rural school districts that they would otherwise likely not have access to because of the unique challenges of rural education. REAP is divided into two programs: the Small Rural Schools Program and the Rural Low-Income Schools Programs (RLIS).

The current issue pertains to the RLIS programs. The law which authorizes the programs requires that poverty levels be measured by the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE). But for many years, USED has permitted poverty levels to be measured using the percentage of students receiving free and reduced priced meals. USED recently notified states that it would no longer permit free and reduced priced meal percentages to be used as a measure of poverty for receiving funds through the program. The problem, however, is if states/districts revert to only using the SAIPE for measuring poverty, small rural school districts across the country stand to lose funding. And while the dollar figures lost per school district might not look like a lot of money, with the severe funding challenges many small rural school districts face across the country, every single dollar counts. Literally, every dollar.

There must be a way for USED to align its practice with the federal statute, which is important, while also ensuring that there is no financial harm to these school districts. Whether it is through the action of Congress and changing the federal statute to permit the use of free and reduced priced meals as a poverty measure (which is actually a more accurate measure for schools than the SAIPE), or at the very least, devising and implementing a transition from the current process to the measure required by statute, ideally with a financial hold-harmless provision for states and school districts. Whatever the case, it does not at all seem reasonable for students in small rural school districts that are often already financially drained, to suffer because of this change in how poverty is calculated. I pray that we don’t come to that place.

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