Spotlight

AASA Establishes Dedicated Rural Funding Via REAP

by Mary Kusler

In the six years since the Rural Education Achievement Program was signed into law, thousands of school districts have received assistance from the federal government to overcome the higher costs of education in geographically isolated areas.

When AASA created this program over seven years ago we convened a group of rural superintendents to find out what Congress could provide specifically for small, rural school districts. As the superintendents talked about their local challenges, it became clear they wore many hats. Some talked about how they also worked as the principal or a teacher, while some drove the school buses when a driver called in sick.

With the many distractions rural superintendents face, it is hard to find time to apply for competitive grants. Because they receive a smaller percentage of dollars from the federal government than their larger rural, suburban and urban counterparts, REAP was designed to help them fill the void.

Two Avenues
REAP comprises two distinct programs: the Small and Rural School Achievement Program and the Rural and Low-Income Program. The former program was designed to help small, geographically isolated districts increase the flexibility in their use of federal dollars and to ensure they received a minimum of $20,000 to $60,000 from the federal government, not including Title I dollars.

To be eligible for this program, the district must have an average daily attendance of 600 or fewer students or have 10 or fewer residents per square mile and be designated as rural according to the U.S. Johnson Locale Codes. This coding system determines a school’s geography and assigns them a code from one through eight, with one being the most urban and seven and eight defined as rural.

Once a district is deemed eligible, the leadership is asked to fill out a one-page application. AASA worked hard to ensure the application process was streamlined. We did not want this new funding source to present administrative hurdles that would prevent districts from applying. Once the application is received, the money flows directly from the U.S. Department of Education to the local school district. Since the program’s inclusion in the No Child Left Behind Act, the department has grandfathered in districts that were REAP recipients in the previous year, reducing the number of districts that needed to complete new applications each year.

The money can be spent on any allowable use within the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. AASA has encouraged districts from the beginning to spend the money where it will impact students. Ideally, eligible districts should consolidate the number of projects that REAP dollars are spent on to account for the specific impact of the dollars. In addition, eligible districts are given 100 percent flexibility with their federal formula dollars under ESEA, except that no dollars can be moved out of Title I.

Hemingford, Neb., Public Schools with 443 students, received a REAP grant for $34,203 in 2003-04. The district used its full allocation to support teacher/principal in-service and training. “It has allowed us to add a full-time employee who directs our staff development program and works directly with our staff,” former Superintendent Edwin Hollinger says. “This provides us with some of the same advantages a larger school may enjoy.”

This is just one of many success stories from the 4,000-plus school districts that have benefited from this program.

A Few Roadbumps
The Rural and Low-Income Schools Program was designed to concentrate on the challenges of geographic isolation combined with high-poverty student populations. It was designed as a supplemental grant program that flowed through the state education agencies to the eligible school districts based on the number of students.

Eligible districts must have 20 percent poverty, according to the latest U.S. Census, and have a Johnson Locale Code of six, seven or eight, which designates the district as rural or in a small town. Money available under this program has a more specific list of uses, including teacher recruitment or retention, education technology, parental involvement activities, Safe and Drug Free Schools, emergency immigrant programming and the education innovative block grant.

The Sargent School District in Monte Vista, Colo., used its federal allocation to purchase a state-of-the-art wireless computer lab for the elementary school. “This has boosted our ability to teach literacy and numeracy skills in grades K-6,” says Timothy Snyder, the former superintendent.

However, no new programs develop without some bumps along the way. One of the peculiar problems has been the number of school districts that once were eligible but no longer are due to the increase in federal funds received under NCLB. We hope this issue will be addressed and corrected during the reauthorization of ESEA.

Another concern is the number of districts that hold their REAP dollars rather than spending them. This sends the wrong message to politicians in Washington, D.C., that rural school districts do not really need this money. Recipient districts should spend these dollars and not roll them over at the end of the year.

Growing congressional support has helped sustain REAP over the past six years, but rural administrators cannot let that support slip. Districts should thank members of Congress for their support for the only federal funding stream dedicated to rural education and should encourage their backing in the future. REAP stands as one more example of what AASA is willing to do for its rural membership.

Mary Kusler is AASA assistant director of government relations. E-mail: mkusler@aasa.org