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Competitive Grants are Nothing New

The topic of National Journal's Education Expert blog this week is "Do Competitive Grants Hurt Equal Opportunity?" A lot of ink and hot air has been spilled lately around formula vs. competitive grants--largely in relation to Race to the Top. And I find the conversation exceedingly odd.

I mean, it's not as if Race to the Top is the only competitive federal education grant program. Nor did the Obama administration invent federal competitive grants.

Indeed, a search for "discretionary/competitive" grant opportunities on the Department of Education's website yields a whopping 214 programs! To be fair, this includes programs across the full spectrum from early childhood through graduate school, as well as some programs that were funded in the past but are not currently funded. But still--there are a lot of competitive federal grant programs! I won't bore you to death by listing all 214, but here are a few examples:

Some of these programs are relatively new, but others are not--TRIO, for example, has been around since 1964!

So why the big stink now? Well, for one thing, Race to the Top is a much bigger program than most existing federal competitive grant programs. But if you add existing federal competitive grant programs together, the total we're already spending on them is greater than the $1.3 billion the administration requested for RTT in FY2011, and the $650 million and $800 million in the current Senate and House bills are within the ballpark of some other federal competitive grant programs past and present. Ditto requested i3 funding levels.

Moreover, I'd argue that the size of RTT is one reason it should compare favorably to many existing competitive grant programs. The Department of Education budget currently includes funding for a host of tiny education programs focused on relatively narrow issues. I'm sure the projects these programs fund are worthy, but a few million dollars spent on a smattering of projects across the country is hardly sufficient to have transformational impacts on the education system as a whole. Further, many of the same criticisms currently leveled at competitive programs apply all the more to these existing ones: Only states or districts with the savvy and resources to seek out rather obscure federal grant opportunities and craft compelling applications are able to access and benefit from these resources. Because many of these programs focus on relatively narrow issues or priorities, applicants need to bend their own initiatives to meet federal criteria and priorities in order to have a chance of getting funds. And it's all the worse because a number of these smaller competitive programs are not particularly well aligned with national or state reform goals.

If the real problem is competitive grants, why aren't critics going after these programs, as well as Race to the Top, which is designed to support systemic, statewide reforms; is clearly aligned with national reform goals; it is far less prescriptive about the specific activities applicants must undertake than some other federal competitive grant programs, and has been so well publicized that you'd have to be living under a rock not to know it's out there?

Not to mention that some of the people most critical of RTT's competitive nature support other competitive programs: The Civil Rights groups whose criticisms of RTT gained attention last week have typically been proponents of programs like GEAR UP and TRIO. Appropriations Chairman Obey's own committee has frequently restored or increases funding levels for small competitive programs that both the Bush and Obama administrations have sought to eliminate or cut (such programs are frequently pet initiatives of particular members of Congress). If I were more cynical, I might think this "competitive" business was all a red herring for ideological opposition to RTT.

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