By Associated Press - Thursday, February 27, 2020

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A change in the way the U.S. Department of Education is determining how schools qualify for rural low-income grants could cost as many as 220 Montana schools a total of $400,000, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said.

The department proposes determining qualification based on census data rather than the number of students who qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches. In an email to state education officials, the department said statutory language in the Every Student Succeeds Act required the use of census data.

Nationally, the funding cut would total $5.4 million, according to the National Rural Education Association. Tester said Wednesday that he plans to introduce legislation to reverse the change in eligibility rules.

Montana Rural Education Association Director Dennis Parman said Montana schools received $798,000 for the 2019-20 school year and used the funding for after-school programs or extra academic support for students.

The program provides money to improve student achievement at school districts that do not have the resources to compete for other federal grants. It is scheduled to be awarded in July.

Office of Public Instruction spokesman Dylan Klapmeier said officials have contacted Montana schools that will lose funding and are “definitely concerned.”

“It seems like it is a legal interpretation between the department and Congress,” he told The Billings Gazette. Assuming that the department’s interpretation is correct, “it seems like it’s an issue that Congress needs to update.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who co-authored the 2002 law creating the program and its 2015 re-authorization, urged Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to reverse the cuts that the Portland Press Herald reported would cost schools in Maine $1.2 million.

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