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New York's Competitive Education Grants Sputter on Launch Pad

One of the most prominent features of the K-12 education budget proposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for fiscal 2014 was his plan to offer a series of competitive grants for districts that would be used for initiatives to extend learning time and create more community schools. I neglected to mention in my January article that this grant system was actually available to districts for the 2012-13 school year, albeit on a much smaller scale. But one nonprofit research group says that based on how the grant system has worked for this academic year, there's reason to be skeptical that districts will hungrily leap after state money that's dangled in this way.

The Citizens Budget Commission released a report on grants from New York state that analyzes how $50 million in competitive grants made available to districts for 2012-13 were dispensed. The two categories of grant funding were in "performance improvement" (for districts that demonstrated ability to close achievement gaps and raise performance among needy students" and "management efficiencies" (for districts that, essentially, streamlined operations in a smart way and saved some cash). Each of these two categories had $25 million up for grabs, with award amounts tied to districts' enrollment numbers on a sliding scale.

The result? Only about $17 million in state lucre was awarded to the districts. Rochester City ISD got the largest haul with $1.5 million in each of the two categories (Rochester is a member of the Conference of Big 5 School Districts, the five largest districts in the state). The highest per-student award for any district in both categories was $262. New York Newsday reported that fewer than one in 10 districts actually applied for the grants, and 40 of the 700 school districts around the state actually won grants—simple math does tell us that means a majority of districts that applied for grants actually received some money.

"Districts will find it confusing to distinguish between the various programs and are unlikely to apply when only small sums per student are available," the commission writes in its conclusion to the report. "The preferable method for distributing school aid is to target it through aid formulas that measure student need and district ability to pay."

Critics of competitive grant systems for K-12 aid have long had a beef with the Race to the Top program from the U.S. Department of Education. In her recent piece about Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline's visit back home in Minnesota, my Politics K-12 colleague Alyson Klein documented one such complaint from a district superintendent.

Hold on, though. A spokesman for Cuomo, a Democrat, told Newsday that many districts couldn't get out of the starting blocks with respect to grant applications, because they didn't have teacher evaluations in place yet. Since 99 percent of districts now have state-approved evaluation plans, Rich Azzopardi argued, "we anticipate much more competition in addition to the districts that were already rewarded for their innovative program." (He's leaving out the fact that the biggest district of them all, New York City, doesn't have an evaluation deal in place.)

In total, these grant programs will expand from $50 million this school year to $175 million for the 2013-14 school year, and the number of grant categories will also grow from two to eight, the Citizens Budget Commission says. The next few months will show which argument stands up to evidence.

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