The Advocate December 2023: Critical Funding for Rural Schools

December 06, 2023

Rural schools represent 28% of all schools in the U.S., serving more than 9 million students. This month, we are focusing on two federal programs that are critical for rural schools across the country: Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP) and the Secure Rural Schools (SRS).

Let’s start with REAP (also known as Title IV of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). REAP is the only federal program specifically for rural school districts, acknowledging their unique circumstances while providing broad flexibility in how they can use funds from the program. This year, AASA ventured to gain a better understanding of how districts use REAP funds – surveying more than 350 superintendents from 33 states who participated in the program. Last month, we published that information in a new report: “View From the District: The Rural Education Achievement Program.”

You can read the full report here or listen to the PEP Talk episode where we discuss the key findings here. We found the most common uses of funds included technology, software and devices (56%); professional development for teachers and staff (27%); and, tied for third was investing in greater staff compensation and expanded curricular offerings (STEM courses, arts education, etc.) (20%).

In the report, we provide in-depth examples of just how critical REAP funds are to districts and the numerous programs and supports they make possible for students. From providing counselors and mental health professionals and addressing staff shortages to replacing a primary server and investing in school safety technology, the stories from respondents underscore the importance of the program – and its flexibility. The variation of responses we received reflect the variations of school districts across the country. Every district is different, therefore, every district’s needs and necessary investments will also be different.

One message is clear: REAP funds are vital for rural schools across the country. As we watch for Congress to fully fund Fiscal Year (FY) 2024, we continue to advocate for increased investments in this program. REAP currently receives bipartisan support – the House proposal that guts education funding back to 2006 funding levels even provided level funding for REAP ($215 million). We encourage Congress to continue to support this unique federal education program that enables small and high-poverty districts throughout rural America to better support their students, educators and communities.

Now, let’s pivot to a program that is just as critical to many rural schools, but is in a far more precarious position at this time: Secure Rural Schools (also known as the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act).

This program provides funding to counties who have national forests within their jurisdiction. Originally, these entities received a portion of revenues generated on these lands—timber sales, recreation, land use rentals, etc. However, starting in the 1990s, federal timber sales began to decline substantially, which led to substantially reduced payments to the counties. Enter: Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000. Congress stepped in to provide these communities with a different source of funding.

Title I of SRS provides money that must be spent on schools or roads—meaning many rural schools rely on the funding from this program since there is a reduced ability to get funding from property taxes. SRS was last reauthorized in 2021 through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, providing payments for FY21-23. If the program is not reauthorized, payments revert to the revenue-sharing model and those communities (and the rural schools within them) stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. For example, the last time Congress failed to reauthorize SRS in FY2016, the funding for one rural district in California dropped from $569,692 to $35,601.

The Secure Rural Schools Reauthorization Act of 2023 (S. 2581) would reauthorize the program for another 3 years, FY24-26. AASA is a strong proponent of the bill. Last month, we joined AESA, NREA and NREAC in a joint letter to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, urging them to support the bill. The bill is now scheduled for mark up in committee on December 14 – a key step to moving the proposal forward.

Once Congress has addressed the immediate concern of reauthorizing SRS in the short-term, they must figure out a long-term solution for these communities and schools so they no longer must function in 3-year cycles, worrying about whether or not they will get the funding they need. There is no alternative funding for these communities.