Thanks to an under-the-radar bookkeeping change at the Department of Education, hundreds of rural schools across the US are set to lose vital funds.
As reported in the New York Times, the department has changed the eligibility criteria for the Rural and Low-Income School Programme, which provides funding for school districts in some of the poorest parts of the country.
The change will make it harder for districts to demonstrate their eligibility, meaning hundreds of them will lose tens of thousands of dollars – and in some cases much more.
Nearly a seventh of the US’s public school pupils live in rural school districts, which have long been poor and underfunded. Many depend on the programme to fund everything from anti-bullying initiatives to counselling to language lessons for non-English speakers.
To qualify for the programme, school districts must prove that at least 20 per cent of their area’s school-age children live in poverty.
Officially, they are required to do so using census data, but because the census often leaves out many people living in rural areas, they have in practice been allowed to cite the percentage of their pupils who qualify for free or subsidised meals.
The department has now abruptly decided that it will only allow districts to use census data, meaning districts will struggle to account for all children in their local areas who would qualify.
A department spokeswoman told the Times that the move is simply a matter of following the law and that Congress can legislate to formally change the criteria, but the move has nonetheless met with condemnation from both Democrats and Republicans.
Even some of those sympathetic to Donald Trump and invested in his re-election are baffled as to why the department would withdraw the money from poor, rural districts, including core parts of the president’s electoral base.
Senators including Susan Collins of Maine are now scrambling to put together a fix that will ensure schools can still access the programme.
The Department of Education is led by Betsy DeVos, who was one of Mr Trump’s most controversial cabinet appointees at the start of his administration. She has drawn fire both for her lack of experience in schools and her past statements advocating a religious agenda for public education.