Competitive Grants and Federal Education Policy

In two recent posts about Race to the Top (RTTT), I expressed skepticism about a sunny assessment of the program’s influence and critiqued the mindset behind federal efforts to remake complex education systems.

But my M.O. is not to disparage all federal K–12 activity. From Brownthe National Defense Education Act, and Title I to the charter school grant program, NCLB’s disaggregated data, and the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, Uncle Sam has done some serious good for our schools. So I believe that there should be a federal K–12 agenda (for instance), and I hope both parties’ presidential candidates start articulating one.

What I’m interested in is fashioning some rules of the road. The agnosticism/nihilism of insisting on no federal activity ever would’ve amounted to a “Road Closed” sign to high-return investments like NAEP and seed funding for charters. The progressive hubris of believing that the feds can solve everything, on the other hand, is the on-ramp to P.J. O’Rourke’s bon mot about government-induced pileups. I think the middle of this road might offer a new strategy (not just yellow lines and dead armadillos).

So let’s get specific. Start by thinking of an issue that you believe should be a federal K–12 priority over the next decade. Maybe it’s investing in the nation’s highest-performing students. Maybe it’s overhauling teacher training. Maybe it’s replacing failed urban school districts. You decide.

Whatever your choice, it’s probably pretty clear from the start that the federal government will only be able to directly accomplish so much. Then there are the unintended consequences that inevitably tumble out of big federal initiatives. History offers plenty of examples of both: Despite fifty years and hundreds of billions of Title I dollars, millions of low-income kids are still assigned to failing schools. ESEA accountability rules contributed to over-testing. Federal pushiness precipitated the Common Core backlash and subsequent erosion of the testing consortia. Beltway-goosed teacher evaluations are still producing the widget effect.

So what’s a reformer to do?

A helpful roadmap is offered in a recent Marty West paper for Brookings. I’m not entirely sold on its framework or conclusions, but it brings order and reasoning to what’s generally an ideological debate.

West begins, “The question is whether, in their understandable efforts to rein in Washington’s influence, legislators can preserve those elements of federal policy that stand to benefit students and taxpayers.” Assuming that new federal mandates are politically taboo, West focuses on competitive grant programs, which invite states and districts to apply for funds to support programs addressing federal priorities.

Conventional formula-based programs can divvy up dollars evenly, but they don’t change behavior much. The right kind of competitive grant, however, allows the federal government to set a priority while enabling state and local direction and innovation.

West identifies four categories of competitive-grant approaches, and two of them appeal to me particularly. One, which I’d call a “specified preference” grant, would be a relatively small program with a very narrow federal priority. In this case, Uncle Sam would be directive; essentially, the feds believe they have a correct answer and want to see more of it. West gives as an example the Teacher Incentive Fund. But it could also be something like state awards for creating non-district charter authorizers, or perhaps a certification program for gifted education teachers. Though prescriptive, this explicitly hemmed-in approach avoids the RTTT brass of requiring multiple, simultaneous, large-scale, interrelated initiatives.

The other attractive approach is what I’d call a “flexible priority” grant. West gives as an example the Investing in Innovation fund (i3), which established four broadly defined federal priorities. Applicants had to adhere to one of these loose categories (e.g., improving data use), but they had ample latitude on what to propose. This approach allows the federal government to take a broader, more systemic view, but the explicit flexibility given to applicants prevents federal administrators from dictating the specifics. Possible future programs along these lines could, for instance, foster innovation in technology, rural schooling, or the arts.

In my opinion, both types of competitive grants are worth considering. They allow a president to direct the nation’s attention (and a small amount of funds) to a subject his administration deems a priority. But both approaches also protect against the unavoidable costs of overbearing federal K–12 activity. The first allows Uncle Sam to get specific, but it keeps him narrow. The second gives him room to stretch his legs while keeping him out of details.

We should want our presidents to have some influence on K–12 happenings. Education is too important to be completely divorced from a democratically informed and legitimated national policy agenda. But experience teaches that we should be wary of federal administrators’ promising The Answer for the nation’s schools.

It seems to me that a smart competitive-grant strategy is both a middle road between the two—and the earthwork for a compelling K–12 campaign platform. Presidential candidates could put heart, voice, and muscle behind some education priorities while swearing off the federal excesses of the last decade and a half.

– Andy Smarick

This post, which first appeared on Flypaper, is the final entry of a three-part series on Race to the Top’s legacy and the federal role in education. You can read the first two entries here and here.

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