Most of us have seen that bumper sticker that says something like, “It will be a fine day when our schools have all the money they need and we have to hold a bake sale to raise money for the Pentagon.”

Consider that sentiment, if you will. Do you believe that some small part of the taxpayer’s money, which the federal government distributes using whatever convoluted formula it uses, ought to go to the schools? You may say yes, you may say no. There are sensible arguments to be made either way, but you might be interested to learn how a small part of federal school funding is spent on the coast of Maine.

On Matinicus Island, local children attend a one-room school, which is still very much a regulated, taxpayer-funded public elementary school despite its lack of cinder block hallways, 10-stall bathrooms and snow-day school closings on the morning news. Children on Monhegan, Isle au Haut, Frenchboro, the Cranberry Isles and Cliff Island do likewise, and the schools on Long and Chebeague islands aren’t a lot bigger. You would be mistaken if you thought, as many do, that “the state” finances and maintains the education of these children. In the case of Matinicus, where I taught once long ago, where I was the school district bookkeeper for nine years and where I am now a member of the school board, the school is funded almost entirely by local property tax dollars. Very, very little of the money that supports Matinicus Elementary comes from anybody besides Matinicus taxpayers. We get a couple of hundred dollars a month from the state of Maine in school subsidy payments (one year, a while back, we got exactly $22.66 per month from Augusta. That is not a typo.) There is one other source of funding that is large enough to actually be useful: the Rural Education Achievement Program funds, or REAP.

Congress, in its legitimate effort to cut spending, is looking at eliminating REAP along with more than 40 other education-related programs. Matinicus superintendent Jerry White mentioned at a recent school board meeting that Sen. Susan Collins has introduced a bill to continue REAP. In White’s words REAP “complements and is indispensable to our educational program for our students.” According to the U. S. Department of Education’s website:

“Part B of Title VI of the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act contains Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP) initiatives that are designed to help rural districts that may lack the personnel and resources to compete effectively for federal competitive grants and that often receive grant allocations in amounts that are too small to be effective in meeting their intended purposes. The… initiatives include the Small Rural School Grant Program (CFDA no. 84.358A) (which) authorizes the secretary to award formula grants directly to eligible local educational agencies….”

According to our superintendent, who was closely involved in the creation of the program: “REAP was passed in the late 1990s to assist rural schools with the extraordinary costs of educating students in rural settings. The wording is broad enough to include all manner of expenses for student achievement. Since I wrote most of that, I intended to keep it broadly focused in order to impact as many students as possible. Sen. Susan Collins was the primary sponsor with several co-sponsors from other rural states. She did and continues to do a lot for rural schools. The upper student count limit is 600. Funds are awarded on a sliding scale. For instance, a school of 0 to 50 students gets $20,000 minus any federal program money, such as Title I and so on.”

Tiny schools like ours spend an astronomical percentage of their budget on fixed or obligatory costs, such as teacher salaries, insurance and utilities. We who support these small isolated schools understand perfectly well how economies of scale do not work, and that per-pupil costs will be of necessity high. That’s fine; the alternative (having no school) is not an acceptable choice. A few thousand dollars can make a big difference to a half-dozen students, though. An amount of money that a large school district might expend on just the costs of applying for a grant could be, for us, enough money to bring isolated students from all over Maine together several times through the year. It can and does send the students to cultural events, allows them to interact with age-mates from other islands, and teaches them lifelong skills not available in their remote communities.

For a school like ours, $15,000, plus or minus, is a lot of money, and every dime of it is used on real things and real activities for students…not a penny for administration, none for blue-ribbon panels of experts, nothing for anything intangible.

Matinicus has used REAP funds to purchase science instruction equipment and supplies, to pay for the (always expensive) transportation off the island so the students can participate in cultural and enrichment activities to which they’ve been invited, and to expand our library. It has helped teachers attend conferences to work with other island educators, and has allowed us to bring special guests to Matinicus to hold elementary-age workshops in dance, Spanish, theater and other “specials.”

Each winter for the past few years our students have spent time at Sugarloaf during “kids ski free week,” participating all day in serious skiing and snowboarding lessons (other fundraising or in-kind assistance helps pay for this trip as well). Says our superintendent of the Sugarloaf trip, “It’s absolutely hilarious but it’s [a lot of] our physical education program. I can defend that one until the cows come home!”

Some readers will say to themselves, “this country can’t afford to tax people so that few island kids can go skiing.” Ordinarily I’d probably say the same thing, being fairly conservative with a buck myself, all else being equal. All else isn’t equal, though. I urge you to think of it this way: Most schools spend truckloads of taxpayer money on bureaucracy and things a student never sees. Most schools couldn’t even pay for the office supplies with the few thousand dollars we get from the government and spend on student enrichment. Most students have plenty of opportunity to interact with children outside their handful of immediate neighbors without the school’s help. Most children are the indirect beneficiaries of a great deal more tax money than this. Finally, the tiniest schools in America are fighting to exist, and I feel strongly that we need to remain on the larger government’s radar. We are still “real schools.”

Also, there’s that business about the bake sale and the Pentagon. Just because we’re small, we don’t need much and we are fairly self-sufficient, does that mean we shouldn’t be part of the larger taxpayer obligation to the nation’s children?