Federal Dateline

Rural Districts Finally Reap Federal Favor

by MARY KUSLER

As rural students across America prepare to head back to school for another year, their school districts will have new federal resources to help them succeed. These additional resources will enable rural districts to attract and retain quality teachers, provide afterschool options for their students and even increase assistance to high-poverty students.

Over the past three years, AASA has worked with its rural membership and some key leaders on Capitol Hill to ensure small, rural districts were not being left behind. For years, rural school districts have struggled at the administrative level to obtain competitive grants from the federal government due to lack of time to devote to the application process. This has resulted in far fewer federal dollars for these districts than urban or suburban counterparts have received. Thanks to the efforts of Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Reps. Tom Osborne, R.-Neb., and Earl Pomeroy, D.-N.D., who worked with AASA to develop the program, rural education has been brought to the forefront of federal education policy.

For the first time, the federal government acknowledged that rural districts face unique obstacles when it comes to implementing federal programs. The Rural Education Achievement Program, or REAP, will expand its effects on rural districts this fall thanks to newly allocated dollars.


Easy Application
Rural districts will fall within one of two programs. If they enroll fewer than 600 students, they most likely will qualify under the Rural and Small Schools Achievement Program. A larger, high-poverty district likely qualifies for the Rural and Low Income Schools Program. Both will send additional resources to rural districts, but the first program has the added benefit of providing increased flexibility within the federal formula programs.

Throughout late spring, small rural districts worked through the application guidelines. Because this program is administered directly by the federal government to the eligible districts, the U.S. Department of Education struggled to develop a process that was least burdensome on the individual districts. Though the process hit a few bumps along the way, the department accomplished its goal.

The one-page online application took no more than 10 minutes for a district to fill out and file electronically. The most labor-intensive element consisted of locating three different school district numbers required in the application. Next year it should be even easier to apply as most of the small, rural districts will have those numbers close at hand.

Districts eligible for the Rural and Low Income Schools Program should see details from their state education agencies by the start of the school year. Because dollars for this program flow through the state, decisions on how to distribute these resources must be made. Each state has the option of distributing the dollars via a competitive grant or through a formula based on the number of students in each district.

Full Funding
So where do we go from here? REAP was funded at $162.5 million for the 2002-2003 school year. Full funding is estimated at $300 million. Last February, President Bush, in his FY 2003 budget proposal zeroed-out funding for REAP, claiming the needs of rural education were met in other areas within the “No Child Left Behind Act” and no extra assistance for those districts was needed.

This, of course, is a far different message than what we hear from those districts that are eligible for this program. In many school districts nationwide, the supplemental funds provided under this program will double their intake of federal dollars, not including Title I.

While the message from the administration is not positive, REAP is well regarded among members of Congress, especially the appropriators. We want to see it fully funded this year at $300 million. However, it will require help from every eligible district to get the message to Congress that we want to see REAP fully funded.

Full funding for REAP will have a direct impact on the federal resources that flow to rural America for education. But to maintain these resources at the highest levels, you must contact both your senators and your representative to thank them for funding REAP this year and ask for their support to increase funding in future years. Without the combined effort of all eligible districts, REAP will cease to exist.

Let us work together to maintain the federal focus on rural education.

Mary Kusler is a legislative specialist at AASA. E-mail: mkusler@aasa.org