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ESEA and the Competitive Grant Question

When it comes to the federal role in education, competitive grants typically have broad appeal. So it's no surprise that a lot of smart people are arguing that ESEA reauthorization should go heavy on competitive grants. The case is easy to make. Competitive grants avoid federal mandates while still targeting resources for federal priorities. They can support and encourage states that are pursuing X or Y without forcing other states to do the same. In fact, several smart folks have told me that they think competitive grants are the way to give Arne Duncan and NCLB hard-liners the federal push they want without offending the sensibilities of Hill Republicans.

Yet, for all this, I think any substantial push on competitive grants is not happening in the current push for a new ESEA. The idea is a dead letter. And I think that's probably a good thing. Why is it a dead letter? And what's the problem with the idea?

It's a dead letter for two reasons. First, the folks who want a strong federal role won't be satisfied by competitive grants. For instance, some have floated the notion that groups like the Education Trust might have to accede to Republican demands for a less aggressive federal role, but could get ambitious competitive grants in return. The thing is that the Education Trusts of the world are much less worried about incentivizing Massachusetts than about policing Mississippi. They're worried about states they regard as bad apples; however, competitive grants, by design, reward states that do their homework and sit in the front row.

Second, conservatives who have historically had some affinity for competitive grants have soured on them during the past half-decade. Competitive grants appeal most when Uncle Sam fuels states that are pioneering new ways to address challenges, without trying to dictate strategies or turn states into agents of Washington. The experience of the Obama-Duncan years, most famously with Race to the Top, has left many conservatives skeptical of that bargain. After all, rather than fund states that were already inclined to tackle a particular problem or experiment with a particular program, RTT invested billions in a very public effort to compel states to sign onto a 19-item federal reform agenda. The aftermath entailed years of invasive federal monitoring and "collaboration," during which junior staff at the U.S. Department of Education exerted remarkable influence over the states that received RTT funds. And, for all this, conservatives question the effort's value and payoff.

Consequently, conservatives are now suspicious of competitive grants, while many liberal reformers want something that competitive grants can't deliver. That's why the picture doesn't look that bright for competitive grants. But this is actually pretty okay news. Why?

Well, our current system for handling competitive grants just isn't that solid. The various iterations of Race to the Top, for instance, are hobbled by some fundamental flaws that are not a question of venality but a question of design. In truth, many of the same problems plagued the earlier Reading First program (which wasn't about competitive grants, but suffered many of the same flaws). What are the problems? One is the need to rapidly create ad hoc structures for evaluating applicants. A second is a lack of ground rules for deciding who ought to judge these things, how the judges ought to apply evidence, or what evidence ought to count. A third is the difficulty of creating a convincing firewall that separates the process from the political leadership in the department. The result of all this is that, even if we stipulate good intentions and reasonable judgment, competitive grants feel less like a way to let states follow their own course than an under-the-radar way to promote a presidential agenda.

Fortunately, there is a way forward here. Rather than advocating for new dollars to push particular programs, proponents of competitive grants should encourage Congress to use ESEA to create an infrastructure at IES that could oversee competitive grants (or initiatives like Reading First) in a less politicized and ad hoc way. The entity ought to be empowered to devise more consistent notions of expertise and rules of evidence (drawing on IES's stellar work reviewing research proposals). Such a course obviously wouldn't satisfy the jones for exciting new competitive grants right now, but it could provide a solid basis for doing more of them once today's concerns with RTT have started to mellow—and for doing them in a more effective, bipartisan, and sustainable manner.

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