rural schools
(Megan Ross)

WASHINGTON — Rural school districts across Oklahoma currently receiving funding through a low-income school program are at risk of losing funding that helps pay teachers and staff. 

A bipartisan letter was sent to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos opposing the abrupt change to the methodology of eligibility for the Rural and Low-Income School grant program. The letter, signed by 21 senators including Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), prompted the education department to give schools more time to adjust to the change.

Gaylord NewsThis story was reported by Gaylord News, a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.

The transition to the new plan for determining eligibility could result in a loss of funding to as many as 144 of the Oklahoma school districts currently qualifying for the grant program.

However, this change in data collection is only pushed back for a year.

The low-income grant program is focused on funneling federal dollars into rural districts across the nation to improve student achievement. 

Over the last couple years, Oklahoma has received $4.6 million in 2019 and will receive $4.7 million this year in funding through the program. 

For years, Oklahoma school districts, on the advice of the State Department of Education, have been using numbers from the Free and Reduced Lunch Program, which calculate poverty in a school district to qualify. To be eligible for the low-income grant program, a district must have 20 percent of the population qualify for free and reduced lunches. 

Steffie Corcoran, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, supports using the lunch program numbers. 

“It is a more current and accurate count of students living in poverty than the census estimate,” Corcoran said.

But beginning this fall, Oklahoma could begin transitioning to using the Census Bureau’s small area income poverty estimates, which has been the legal measurement for 17 years. 

Bristow Public Schools is one rural school district who qualifies for the Rural and Low-Income grant program. Bristow is midway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

In 2018, the Census Bureau’s poverty estimates recorded 1,614 children aged 5-17 in the Bristow school district with 353, or 22 percent, living in poverty.  However, the lunch program that year recorded 1,755 students in the district with 1,208, or 69 percent, qualifying for low-income status. 

Unrest throughout rural school districts

Because Bristow’s school district is already emaciated when it comes to faculty and staff, Krista Burden, the assistant superintendent of Bristow Public Schools, is worried about the possibility of rural schools no longer being eligible after the rule change.  

Bristow Schools, as well as many other schools who receive this funding, use those dollars to pay for teacher and support staff positions. Not qualifying for the Rural and Low-Income School grant program could result in positions being terminated. 

“Currently with RLIS funding, we received about $36,000 and so it would be a cut of $36,000 which we actually pay two support salaries with that,” Burden said. 

The support staffers, who are crucial to a student’s success, often go above the job description. 

“We have two library assistants that do much more than just be a library assistant,” Burden said. “They help students with remediation-type things, they are in classrooms sometimes, and basically, that would be cutting those two salaries and you’re cutting two classroom assistants from two different sites if we lose that funding.”

Corcoran echoed the concern and said the reality is wide-spread among the rural schools in the state. She said she understands the crucial roles support staffers are playing in small school districts. 

“When you lose instructional support in a school, that impacts students in a negative way,” Corcoran said.

Lankford said in an interview that Congress wasn’t sure how the data would change the funding allocations. The main thing that mattered was changing to ensure Oklahoma was submitting data in alignment with the law, he said. 

For 17 years, rural schools in Oklahoma and a few other states have all turned in their data, which they all think is correct in the way they’ve turned it in,” said Lankford. “The department of education came back and said actually the way you’re turning in this data and what you’re counting on is not correct according to the law.

Corcoran believes there would be negative repercussions. 

“It would definitely impact rural schools in the state, and we can’t tell which ones or how much,” Corcoran said. 

In rural schools, the lost dollars are particularly precious because they don’t have access to a lot of resources larger school districts have available to them. 

The new method of assessing eligibility of the Rural and Low-Income School grant program would require accurate Census data.

However, a new study showed the 2020 Census could undercount the US population by a range from 0.27 percent to 1.22 percent, which is around 4 million people. 

“It’s not a matter of how do we get more money back to Oklahoma, it’s making sure we are consistent with the law,” Lankford said. “Let’s get through the process of the census and determine how much of the information we can really get there. Let’s get everyone to be able to fill that out.”

(Editor’s note: For a full table showing rural Oklahoma schools that qualify for Rural and Low-Income School funding in the 2020 Fiscal Year and are at risk of facing funding cuts, click here.)