WASHINGTON — Students from 144 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 (RLIS). The letter, signed by 21 senators including Senators James Lankford (R-Okla) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla), prompted the education department to give schools more time to adjust to the change.
The transition to the new plan for determining eligibility could have resulted in a loss of funding to many of the Oklahoma districts currently qualifying for the grant program.
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, the state of Oklahoma has received $4.6 million in 2019 and is receiving $4.7 million this year in funding through this program.
For years, Oklahoma school districts on the advice of the State Department of Education have been using Free and Reduced Lunch Program numbers 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, the 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 the state of Oklahoma could begin transitioning to using the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income Poverty Estimates. This has been the legal measurement for 17 years.
Bristow Public Schools is one of the rural school districts who qualify 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.
This huge gap is creating unrest throughout the rural school districts in Oklahoma.
Because Bristow’s school district is already bare-boned 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.
These support staffers are crucial to a student’s success and 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 this concern and said this reality is wide-spread among the rural schools in the state. She understands the crucial roles support staffers are playing in small school districts.
According to Corcoran, “when you lose instructional support in a school, that impacts students in a negative way.”
Lankford said in an interview Congress was not 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.
“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, those 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. To get accurate Census data, everyone must fill out census forms.
But 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.”
Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.