Find better ways to support education in rural counties

For good reasons, Congress has pulled the plug on a program aimed at funding schools in states such as California (above), where logging in national forests has declined in recent years.
For good reasons, Congress has pulled the plug on a program aimed at funding schools in states such as California (above), where logging in national forests has declined in recent years. The Associated Press

Taxpayers in Kansas and Missouri have subsidized rural counties in other states for more than a decade. But that’s finally ending.

Congress declined to renew funding for the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act in the budget bill approved in December. Now there’s an opportunity to develop a fairer system.

The Secure Rural Schools program originally was meant to serve as a bridge for counties with federal forests in them. Logging revenue was declining, and the money would tide them over while they found new economic engines.

But states that received federal money fought to keep it when it was due to expire, and Congress renewed it. It became a handout that primarily benefited Western states with expansive federal holdings.

In 2013, the federal government sent $276 million to states with federal forests. The biggest winner was Oregon, which received $61 million, nearly twice what California received, the next highest recipient. Idaho, Washington and Montana rounded out the top five. In some Oregon counties, the local tax rate remains artificially low because Uncle Sam was paying the bills. One county alone received $10 million.

Most other states received a pittance. Missouri counties received a bit more than $3 million in total. Kansas counties received nothing.

It would be one thing if Washington distributed aid equitably as part of a rural improvement program. Instead, it played favorites without imposing accountability.

Communities around Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest were better off for the funding but not like states out West. For example, on paper, Shannon County received $274,129 last year. Less money actually makes it to the county’s two school districts, though. The Eminence R-1 School District received about $35,000, though it has more than a third of the county’s students. The rest winds up going back to Washington under complicated rules.

Still, $35,000 helps in the small district with only 275 students. It’s enough money to pay for most of a teacher’s annual salary, and now it’s gone.

“We’ll notice (the expiration of the funds), but we’ve already tightened our belts and taken a deep breath,” Eminence School Superintendent Charles James said. “We’re moving forward. When it comes to federal and state moneys, all you can do is figure out what to cut next.”

He explained that his district budgets for the worst-case scenario because things seem to get worse every year with unfunded mandates and less support from the state and federal governments.

That’s the real problem. If Kansas and Missouri are to elevate all of their students, they cannot rely on handouts from Washington. We must work together to provide the resources schools need, especially in the most economically distressed communities.

Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican from rural Oregon whose district includes several timber counties, says Congress will revisit the payments this year. Representatives from Kansas, Missouri and every other state on the short end of this funding stick should head that off. Self-determination should include, if not self-reliance, at least a fair share for every rural county.