Advocates Push Plan for Rural-District Grant

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Rural educators say they forgo millions of dollars each year because they lack the enrollment, financial resources, and poverty data needed to compete against larger districts for federal school grants.

And that is why a contingent of school advocates wants to revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year to carve out new formula-based grants aimed at improving the reading and mathematics skills of rural students.

"Right now, rural schools don't participate [in some programs] because it's so much hassle for a little dab of money," said Steven Crawford, the superintendent of the 350-student Roff school district in southeastern Oklahoma.

But the Washington-based American Association of School Administrators has drafted a plan that would give rural districts with fewer than 600 students a choice between participating in seven existing federal programs separately or applying for a new grant instead.

Under a system borrowed from the Department of Agriculture that is used to determine ''ruralness,'' about 5,000 districts would be eligible to share up to $225 million in grants.

One of the plan's chief proponents is likely to be the Fort Collins, Colo.-based National Rural Education Association, whose executive committee is expected to endorse the plan formally in April.

"Anything that gives rural districts more flexibility and a fair share of help will be supported by this organization," NREA Executive Director Joe Newlin said.

'Big Plus'

Under what is being called the Rural Education Initiative, qualified districts would each receive federal grants of $20,000 to $60,000, depending on their enrollments. The grants would replace aid from federal programs such as President Clinton's $12 billion, seven-year class-size-reduction initiative, and the Eisenhower Professional Development and Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities programs.

Mr. Crawford said his Oklahoma district, which provides free or reduced-priced lunches to 75 percent of its students, would gladly opt for the single grant. Federal aid to his district under the targeted programs would rise from $15,000 to $50,000 a year, and he'd only need to fill out one form, he said. "This would be enough to make a difference," Mr. Crawford said.

Rural school leaders say the current grant process shortchanges them because their poverty levels are typically understated. Rural families are often reluctant to ask for subsidized school meals for their children, and participation rates in such programs frequently help determine the amount of federal grant awards.

"It's a widespread problem," said Michael Hill, a member of the NREA's legislative committee. "In a small town, there's no anonymity. The last thing you want others to know is that you're poor."

Simply qualifying for federal programs can also be a problem.

The superintendent of the 480-student St. David school system in southeastern Arizona recently discovered that he couldn't sign up for the Clinton administration initiative aimed at eventually hiring 100,000 new teachers. Grants for the program are based in part on enrollment.

"We're so small that the money we'd get wouldn't buy us a full-time teacher, so we don't qualify," said Superintendent Guillermo Zamudio, who wants to hire both a special education and a 1st grade teacher.

While St. David gets about $2,000 total in federal aid for drug education and professional development, the district would receive about $60,000 under the rural school initiative--enough to fill the teaching slots.

"It would be a big plus for us," Mr. Zamudio said.

Rural schools have lobbied for legislation in the past to meet their needs. In 1994, they were successful in getting a provision for rural school reform grants into the latest revision of the ESEA. But while Congress approved a spending level of $125 million for the program, actual funding for it was never appropriated.

Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition in Washington, said the time may be right to sell the rural schools' proposed new strategy. "It's a good year because education is on everyone's minds," he said.

Unlikely Partners

But rural school proponents will have to turn to urban lawmakers and advocates for help.

Jeff Simmering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools, based in Washington, said such a partnership is common. "We're always supportive of funding the greatest needs, and the greatest needs are in urban and rural schools," said Mr. Simmering, whose organization represents 54 of the country's largest school districts.

An official with the Department of Education said the proposal would be reviewed along with numerous other proposals being made as part of the ESEA reauthorization.

A spokesman for the Republicans on the House education committee said that the proposal would be well-received by GOP panel members.

"Money for rural schools is something members feel needs to be addressed," said Jay Diskey, a spokesman for the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "We've long felt that Mr. Clinton's ideas are too tailored for the 100 largest school districts."

A Democratic aide to the committee, who asked not to be identified, said that he was unaware of the plan, but added that Democratic members want to address any problems rural schools might have.

Vol. 18, Issue 24, Pages 20, 22

Published in Print: February 24, 1999, as Advocates Push Plan for Rural-District Grant
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