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Department Of Education Delays School Grant Eligibility Changes

School hallway showing students walking through in a blur.

The U.S. Department of Education has agreed to delay a new rule that could pull significant funding from rural and low-income schools in Montana. The delay follows objections this week from Montana’s U.S. Senators and other high ranking members of Congress.

Federal education officials say states should use Census poverty data to determine poverty levels in school districts, instead of the free and reduced lunch count currently used,

Dylan Klapmeier, communications director for Montana’s Office of Public Instruction, says the proposed change would narrow the window for viewing how many students are living in poverty in Montana.

"We have always used the free and reduced data because that captures more families and students than just the Census poverty data."

School districts are eligible for grants under the federal Rural and Low-Income School Program when 20 percent or more of the kids in the area come from households below the poverty line.

The proposed bookkeeping change — now on hold until the 2021-2022 school year — shrinks the number of districts considered eligible for federal aid to help provide an equitable education in rural and low-income areas.

It would have cut hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to schools across the state, July 1. The delay allows time for Congress to step in.

Columbia Falls Superintendent Steve Bradshaw says the local economy has been hit by recent closures of an aluminium plant and several lumber mills. He says schools in the area use the federal grant money to try to make up for education kids might not be able to get at home.

“Every dime counts.”

But under outlined change, elementary schools in Columbia Falls would lose the grant money completely.

"We have kids that are living in true poverty that don’t have any books in the home. And their parents are working two or three jobs just to feed the kids,” Bradshaw says.

U.S. Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines signed a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos earlier this week calling on the department to rescind it’s methodology for counting rural and low-income school districts.

The letter calls on the federal administration to work with Congress to serve students in rural communities. The change was put on hold within a day of the letter being sent.

Corin Cates-Carney is the news director at Montana Public Radio. He joined MTPR in 2015 and is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.
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