Maine’s rural and low-income school districts are expected to lose $1.2 million in federal funding next year due to a change in interpretation of federal statute dictating how some federal grant money is allocated.

The Maine Department of Education notified districts of the changes to the federal Rural Education Achievement program and its Rural Low-Income Schools grant late last month, saying the “dramatic changes” could reduce Maine’s allocation through the program by 75 percent.

The grant provides federal Title V funds to rural school districts to boost student achievement. The money can be used for services like instruction and programming, language supports or supplemental activities, such as an anti-bullying or after school programs.

Last year, Maine received $1.6 million through the grant, with allocations going to about 100 school districts. For the upcoming school year, the department has estimated Maine will receive only $400,000 due to a change in eligibility criteria for the funding made by the U.S. Department of Education, MDOE spokeswoman Kelli Deveaux said Friday.

The federal department has determined the number of students who receive free and reduced lunch, which for the past 16 years has been allowed as a measure of poverty for districts, is not permitted in federal statute. Instead, the federal government will rely only on U.S. Census data to determine districts’ poverty levels and the amount of funding they receive.

Deveaux said the census data is not as up-to-date as the free and reduced lunch numbers, which districts report to the state annually.

She said the Maine education department has sought clarification from the federal government about the reason for the change and ways to mitigate the impact on school districts.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who co-authored the law creating the program in 2002 and its re-authorization in 2015, sent a letter to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Thursday urging her to reverse the department’s decision.

“Free lunch data is an important measure of poverty for rural districts,” Collins said in the letter. “The Department should immediately reverse this misguided change and restore the use of alternative poverty data as an acceptable measurement, so that rural, low-income students, their teachers and their school communities are spared from drastic cuts that will affect the quality of public education in rural America.”

In a statement Friday, U.S. Department of Education Press Secretary Angela Morabito said, “While these regulations have been in place for more than a decade, we are reviewing the senators’ concerns and take seriously our commitment to ensuring every student is counted and appropriately supported.”

A department spokeswoman did not respond to an email Friday asking whether other senators have also expressed opposition to the decision.

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