Commentary

Each school morning, the first-grade parents of a small rural community in Sierra County, Calif., have to put their sons and daughters on a bus for a commute that takes more than 90 minutes -- that's more than three hours spent sitting on a bus each day.

The long commute means that these children are virtually unable to participate in after-school activities. They are tired. And families lose precious time to spend together. These students and families pay a heavy price.

The reason? Federal funding cuts forced the local school district to close the Pliocene Ridge School, a National Blue Ribbon School for kindergarten through 12th grade. The nearest school was more than 50 miles away. And this is not an isolated incident.

California's rural school districts are in crisis. More schools may have to close their doors, teachers face the real possibility of being laid off, and important school programs will be cut back or eliminated.

Unless Congress is able to provide funding for these rural schools for the 2008-2009 school year, 915 California teachers, school administrators and educational staff will be laid off this year. And a total of 6,931 teachers and staff nationwide.

If we fail to act, California's rural counties, including Sierra, Trinity, Plumas and Siskiyou -- would receive less than 20 percent of current funding, or only approximately $12 million. That's a loss of $57 million.

This would have real and serious repercussions for some of California's most rural counties. Here are just a few:

  • In Sierra County: The local school district would lose an additional 18 percent of their small $7 million budget, teachers in social studies and physical education would be laid off, and vocational education programs would be cut back.

  • In Trinity County: All school districts in the county could face bankruptcy. They would have to cut one full-time school nurse (leaving one nurse to cover the entire 4,000 square-mile county), and cut music and arts programs.

  • In Plumas County: The county would have to layoff teachers which would result in increased class sizes, eliminate all school librarians and close school cafeterias.

At issue is the fact that Congress allowed an important funding program -- called Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination -- to expire in 2006.

The program was established in 2000 to help rural counties adjacent to U.S. national forest land cope with a sharp decline in revenue from federal forest timber sales.

At the time, rural counties received 25 percent of all national forest timber revenues to fund their educational and road improvement programs. But during the 1990s, as fewer trees were cut, these revenues plummeted by 70 percent. And rural schools struggled to make ends meet.

The program has proved to be a lifeline for these school districts.

From 2001 to 2006, the program provided $2.794 billion for schools and road and forest improvement projects for rural counties. In 2006 alone, California's rural counties received approximately $69.6 million.

But after 2006, the program expired. And we in Congress are still trying to find solutions.

Last year, I joined with my colleagues Senators Harry Reid, Ron Wyden, Max Baucus, Patty Murray and others to try to enact a five-year extension for the program.

The measure passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support. But we were ultimately only able to get a one-year extension of the program.

This emergency funding only served as a temporary reprieve. And the funding has already run out.

That's why it is so critical that Congress reauthorizes and funds a multi-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools program.

Bottom line: Congress must take action soon to provide a steady and reliable stream of funding for these rural schools.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is from San Francisco.