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Reform-ey Groups to Congress: Fund Competitive Grants

It's no secret that the Obama administration hearts competitive grant programs—particularly the ones they came up with themselves, like Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods.

And it's also no secret that members of Congress—including many Republicans and some Democrats—are not on the same page. In lean budget times, they'd much rather see scarce extra dollars pumped into formula grants, especially the two big ones that go out to nearly every district, Title I and special education. (Check out this letter from Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee and a big fan of special education funding.) More here.

A number of education organizations—including the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association—are also on Team Formula. The National Education Association also puts a heavy premium on Title I and special education, over say, Race to the Top.

But, aside from the administration and a few members of Congress, the bench for Team Competitive has looked pretty lame.

But now, a bunch of education "reformey" and civil rights groups have made their preference known: They like the idea of investing extra money in competitive grants. (They don't trash formula grants though.)

The groups, including Democrats for Education Reform—a New York City based political action committee—the National Council of La Raza, and Students First (started by former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee), sent a letter today urging lawmakers on the Senate and House committees that oversee education spending and policy to voice support for the Obama administration on some of its budget ideas, including competitive grants.

These include:

•Boosting overall education funding levels by at least $1.7 billion or 2.5 percent.

•Setting-aside 25 percent of state teacher quality money (aka Title II) for a competitive grant program, in addition to $400 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund. Plus, they want to see $5 billion for competitive grants to improve the teaching profession.

•Pumping $850 million into the Race to the Top competition and making the grants available to districts.

•Funding the Investing in Innovation grant program at $150 million a year.

The groups want to see more money for charters than the president asked for, though. They want $330 million, as opposed to the $255 million in the president's budget.

But, by my reading, the letter is basically these groups saying: Hey Mr. President, we got your back on the competitive grants thing. The administration credits its competitive grant strategy with helping to push its agenda on teacher evaluation, standards, and school turnarounds, among other policies. Sounds like these groups agree that they've been effective.

This fight matters, because there's only so much money to go around. In fact, lawmakers overseeing spending in the House of Representatives said today they want to cut spending for health, education, labor, and similar programs to $150 billion overall, compared to $156.3 billion last year, and $157.7 billion in the Senate, according to an analysis by Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding and an all-around edu-budget smarty-pants.

Packer had some more food for thought, comparing the present budget-slimming landscape to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which passed just three years ago and had something for everyone: $100 billion, including $10 billion for Title I grants for districts, more than $11 billion for special education, plus $5 billion for Race to the Top and i3.

"The recovery bill was like the education community got this big bowl of ice-cream, with flavors everyone liked," he said. "Race to the Top was the maraschino cherry on top. Some people like maraschino cherries. Some don't. But now there's no new Title I and special education ice-cream. The only thing that's in the bowl [in the president's budget] are maraschino cherries ... I think that's why there's anxiety."

UPDATE: Charlie Barone, DFER's director of federal policy, has his own food-related metaphor.Competitive grants are pure nutrition, he says.

"In my book, the competitive grant programs are the spinach. Man cannot live on ice cream alone," said Barone in an email.

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