Like foundations, the U.S. Department of Education runs a competitive grant program. At $700 million, it is small compared to the Department’s formula programs like Title I and funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—but significant nonetheless. Earlier this month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released her priorities that will determine which proposals are funded.
DeVos’s priorities are all over the map, though her top priority is predictable—empowering families with greater school choice. Here are the others: promoting innovation and efficiency, fostering flexible paths to obtaining knowledge and skills, fostering knowledge and developing students’ skills, meeting the unique needs of students including student with disabilities, promoting STEM education, promoting literacy, promoting effective instruction, promoting economic opportunity, improving school climate, and ensuring that children in military families have access to school choice.
Rarely do I agree with Michael Petrilli, president of the far-right, pro-privatization Thomas B. Fordham Institute, but this time Petrilli accurately pegs the meaninglessness of the list: “This is like a Christmas tree, with all kinds of shiny objects. Almost every idea in American education, good or bad, is represented here. What also matters is whether they actually use any of these priorities in grant programs. They are giving themselves maximum flexibility by including such a big menu….”
Education Week‘s Alyson Klein believes DeVos’s top priority—expanding school choice for parents—is really the only priority that matters. After all, Betsy DeVos has declared this priority every time she has made a speech since she was confirmed by Congress as U.S. Secretary of Education last January. Klein explains the significance of the $700 million grant line in the Department of Education’s budget: “These competitive-grant(s)… are one of the few levers DeVos has for expanding choice—her number one policy priority—without help from Congress.”
During the Obama administration Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expanded the use of federal grants in education when billions of federal stimulus dollars were awarded through competitive grants. Copying the procedure of philanthropy, Duncan, who staffed some of the key positions in his department with people right out of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, launched competitive programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement, and Innovation grants. Winning states agreed to adopt pet policies of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education such as adopting standards like the Common Core and incorporating students’ test scores in the evaluations of teachers. Use of competitive granting by the Department of Education has been much reduced, however—back down to $700 million. The federal stimulus was a one-time event, and Duncan’s competitive programs proved unsuccessful for improving schools.
Fortunately, the big-ticket items in the Department of Education are formula programs controlled by Congressional appropriations and not subject to the whims of the Secretary of Education. Title I, the centerpiece of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, awards over $15 billion annually to school districts serving a high number or concentration of children living in poverty. Funding to support programs mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—$12 billion—is also awarded annually by formula determined by the number of students with disabilities (and types of their disabilities) in each school district. Formula funding is stable and can be counted on by school districts to pay for ongoing programming; competitive grants, by contrast, are a one-time infusion of revenue and not suitable for covering schools’ operating expenses. Federal grants, like foundation grants, can support developing a piece of curriculum, purchasing technology, or contracting with consultants to train teachers. One-time grants, by their very nature—whether from a philanthropy or the federal government—cannot pay for hiring more teachers or counselors.
We can pretty much predict what sort of projects are likely to be funded under the Department of Education’s $700 million grant fund this year. The first priority listed—“empowering families to choose a high-quality education that meets their child’s unique needs”—is Betsy DeVos’s top priority. If we hadn’t learned that lesson through DeVos’s own strategy of repeating her one idea, we are reminded by this bit of history from Jane Mayer’s New Yorker profile last week of Vice President Mike Pence. Betsy DeVos, like an army of allies of the Koch Brothers, was proposed for her position by Mike Pence, when he led President Trump’s transition team hiring: “Trump began to appoint an extraordinary number of officials with ties to the Kochs and to Pence… Betsy DeVos, a billionaire heiress, who had been a major member of the Koch’s donor network and a supporter of Pence, was named Secretary of Education… A recent analysis by the Checks & Balances Project found that sixteen high-ranking officials in the Trump White House had ties to the Kochs.”