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Feds Halt Rule Change That Would Have Cost Maine's Rural Schools More Than $1M

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NPR ILLINOIS

The U.S. Department of Education is reversing course on a rule that could have jeopardized more than $1 million in funding for rural schools in Maine.

In late January, the Maine Department of Education alerted schools that the federal government planned to change the eligibility rules for its Rural and Low-Income School Program, which provides grants to districts to help cover expenses for teacher training, technology, art teachers and mental health counselors.

For years, the state had determined eligibility for the program using the percentage of students in a district receiving free lunch. But a federal education spokesperson told Maine Public that after an extensive review, they had determined that those "alternative" measures should no longer be used, and all states would instead need to rely on U.S. Census poverty data to determine eligibility. State officials warned at the time that change could have impacted more than 100 districts, with the state losing up to 75 percent of the funding it normally receives.

News of the change prompted a significant push from lawmakers to reverse the DOE decision. On Wednesday, 22 U.S. Senators urged the Department to change its mind. Only a few hours later, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins announced that the Department would reverse the change.

"Had it not, more than 800 rural, low-income schools could have lost crucial funding and been forced to forgo essential activities and services," Collins wrote in a joint statement with New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan.

Mike Hammer, the superintendent of RSU 19 in Newport, Maine, said his district has used funds from the program to develop curriculum for teachers.

“If you take that $30,000 away, and you have to put it back into the regular budget, that could be a position,” Hammer said. “So that grant definitely helps support us, support our budget and not have to take away from something else.”

Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said that while the amount of each grant isn't a whole lot, they have a wide-ranging impact.

"You have 800 different school districts that are being affected across the country. So it's pretty huge."

In a statement, U.S. Department of Education Press Secretary Angela Morabito said that the Department plans to pause the rule change for an additional year and has "provided language to Congress to permanently address this issue."

In an interview Thursday, Collins said that she plans to introduce legislation shortly to ensure the problem won't happen again.

Originally published March 5, 2020 at 12:17 p.m. ET.

Updated 3:10 p.m. March 5, 2020.