Rural Trust to Examine Effectiveness of Competitive Grants for Rural Schools

Last Updated: June 28, 2010

This article appeared in the June 2010 Rural Policy Matters

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has made competitive grants the centerpiece of his proposal for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The Department’s “Blueprint for Reform” uses the word “competitive” 30 times in 39 pages of text. It proposes new or expanded competitive grants in 17 programs areas, ranging from teacher effectiveness to traditional and alternative paths to school leadership, programs for English Language Learners, and charter schools.

Historically, federal funding under ESEA has been distributed primarily by formula, and school districts that are eligible receive funds as a matter of right. This has been especially true for the largest program, Title I, which provides funding for educational services benefitting disadvantaged students, primarily those living in poverty. The formulas have not always been fair, and the Rural School and Community Trust and 17 co-sponsors are currently involved in a Formula Fairness Campaign to improve the Title I formula.

Formula-funded programs would continue under the Department’s Blueprint, but funding would be frozen at current levels while any increase in appropriations for ESEA would go to new or expanded competitive grants. The administration’s preference for competitive grants over formula grants runs on the theme: “We want to fund what works, not what doesn’t work.”

Since the central purpose of ESEA from its inception in 1965 has been to provide “compensatory education” to children in poverty and to enhance equal educational opportunity, it is important to ask whether competitive grants will advance this purpose. This is a very important issue for rural schools, especially high-poverty rural schools, because they are generally small and often lack the technical capacity to compete with larger schools. The City of Chicago School District, which Secretary Duncan headed before assuming his current position, has an Office of External Resources staffed with professional grant writers and served by its own website. For many rural districts the Superintendent (who may also be a school principal) would have to write a proposal.

Moreover, competitive grant guidelines, like those used in the current experimental Invest in Innovation (i3) program, are likely to include minimum size requirements (for example, a minimum number of students served) or have other expectations of large-scale impact. In such cases, rural districts can only compete by organizing into clusters and filing joint applications. This requires a great deal of preliminary effort to form associations of districts, conduct negotiations over the nature of the collaboration, and develop a unified proposal that includes all participants equitably.

The Rural School and Community Trust has recently had a taste of this process. We were provided a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to provide technical assistance and other support to rural districts trying to compete for the first round of i3 funds. We hope this is not a real test of how competitive grants will be administered in the future. The final regulations covering the application process were released only about three months before the proposals were due, and this period coincided exactly with the time when school districts are scrambling hardest to prepare students for year-end tests.

Nonetheless, the process of helping rural districts participate in i3 applications provided the Rural Trust with a variety of experiences in rural schools, both high-poverty and not, as they negotiated the competitive grant experience. We need to evaluate this experience internally.

We also need to look at the final results of the i3 competition. The Department is making an earnest effort at transparency and has provided a website listing all the proposals that were submitted, including information on which of them includes (all or in part) rural districts. So that will be a valuable source of evaluation material. We will also look at which proposals are funded. And we will anecdotally consider proposals we know about that never reached the table for consideration.

We want to know not only whether competitive grants are reaching high-poverty and other rural areas, but to the extent they are not, why not. Competitive grants are important to this administration, but as a principal tool for funding programs to reach high-poverty school districts, they are largely untested. For rural areas, it is important that their performance on that score be measured carefully.

Read more from the June 2010 Rural Policy Matters.