President Barack Obama has reshaped the education policy landscape over the past five years by dangling money—much of it in the form of competitive grants—in front of cash-strapped states and districts.
But, as his administration enters its twilight years, the future is in doubt for programs that have become brand names in the world of K-12 policy, including Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods. Lawmakers have grown increasingly uninterested in funneling scarce federal dollars to programs closely associated with a president whose popularity and influence are on the wane.
It’s unclear if those programs will be around after a new administration takes over in 2017. And they could disappear even faster if Republicans gain control of the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections, as some political forecasters expect.
“In general, if Republicans win the Senate, it’s open season on the competitive programs,” said Erik Fatemi, who until recently served as a top aide to Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee and is now a vice president at Cornerstone Government Affairs, a bipartisan lobbying group in Washington.
“With the possible exception of Promise Neighborhoods,” he said, “they are probably toast.”
The administration—U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in particular—is vowing not to pull back on the competitive-grant strategy. But some congressional allies remain skeptical.
“There isn’t any secret that I’ve disagreed with the administration on competitive grants,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees education spending, said in a recent interview.
She noted that formula-grant programs that go out to every district—particularly Title I grants for disadvantaged students and special education state grants—were reduced in recent budget years because of the across-the-board federal cuts known as sequestration.
Even though those cuts have been temporarily alleviated, domestic discretionary spending is expected to stay relatively flat for the foreseeable future, under a recent budget deal that extends through much of 2015. Ms. DeLauro would rather see extra money directed to formula programs.
Not surprisingly, Republican criticism has been even sharper.
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, said in an email statement that competitive grants can be “useful and appropriate tools,” but added: “Too often, this administration has turned competitive grants into federal mandates.”
Complicating matters: None of the administration’s core competitive-grant programs has been enshrined in the main law governing federal K-12 programs, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation were authorized under language in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the economic-stimulus package. Promise Neighborhoods, which helps communities pair K-12 with services such as early-childhood education, was created as an executive initiative under the budget.
Each program has at least one congressional champion who has introduced a bill to officially include it in the ESEA. But so far, all the sponsors of those bills are Democrats.
What’s more, reauthorization of the ESEA itself is at a standstill, and it’s questionable that a renewal of the law—last revised more than 12 years ago as the No Child Left Behind Act—will be approved during President Obama’s tenure.
Strictly speaking, authorizing legislation isn’t needed for a program to get federal funding. Programs can—and have—received federal dollars without an official statutory blessing. But an authorization can still help a program attract funding.
Secretary Duncan is committed to having the programs move forward.
“If we want to want to do more [on] early childhood, we need more money to do that. If we want to do more Promise Neighborhoods, we need more money to do that,” he said in a recent interview with Education Week. “But we’re not sitting around waiting on it.”
Race to the Top
No program is more closely identified with the Obama administration and its prospective K-12 legacy than Race to the Top. And no other program is in greater danger of being scrapped, should the GOP take over the Senate or when Mr. Obama leaves office in January 2017.
Republicans, including Sen. Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary, say the program has allowed Secretary Duncan too much authority. Even some Democrats are disdainful.
“When Race to the Top was first created, there was a lot of excitement around it,” Rep. DeLauro said. But it created winners and losers, she added. “A lot of states, like Connecticut, poured resources into grant applications, and now we have nothing to show for it,” Rep. DeLauro said.
Already, the Race to the Top coffers have been depleted from a $4 billion high in the stimulus package to $250 million in fiscal 2014.
“This was a once-in-a-generation program, but it’s run its course,” Mr. Fatemi of Cornerstone Government Affairs said.
The administration didn’t do the program any political favors by shifting its focus from state K-12 education redesign to early-childhood education to higher education, he added. The latest Race to the Top proposal would be a $300 million iteration aimed at prodding districts to close achievement gaps.
“No one really understands what it does anymore,” Mr. Fatemi said. “Is it an education equity program? Is it a college-affordability program? The administration has been all over the map, and that doesn’t bode well for its continuation.”
Investing in Innovation
Another program authorized under the stimulus bill—the Investing in Innovation fund, or i3—may have a somewhat better shot of continuing, at least in some form, even if Republicans win the Senate and retain control of the House of Representatives.
Initially financed at $650 million, the i3 pot of money, too, has dwindled to $141.6 million. But the program’s general goals of scaling up and testing out promising research-based practices at the district level have the potential to appeal to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, said Augustus Mays, the director of government relations for WestEd, a nonprofit research-development service agency based in San Francisco.
“There’s an appetite for rigorous, evidence-based research on effective instructional strategies,” Mr. Mays said. “I don’t think they would scrap this idea.” Instead, he speculated, Congress might “rebrand it, but keep the core principles.”
One program might have an even better chance of obtaining bipartisan support to continue: Promise Neighborhoods, which helps schools pair K-12 programs with wraparound services, such as pre-K and arts education. It has some support in the GOP ranks, advocates say, and more fans on the Democratic side of the aisle than other Obama initiatives.
Unlike Race to the Top, for example, it steers clear of controversial policies such as aggressive school turnarounds and teacher evaluation tied to student test scores.
But the program isn’t without its detractors. In 2011, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., introduced an amendment to a bill to renew the ESEA that would have jettisoned language authorizing Promise Neighborhoods.
School Improvement Grants
One outlier among the administration’s high-profile efforts is the School Improvement Grant, or SIG, program, which was originally authorized under the No Child Left Behind law in 2002.
President Obama poured $3 billion into the program under the stimulus alone. The SIG aid has required floundering schools to take dramatic, and widely debated, actions, such as replacing half their staff members and their principals.
Members of Congress already have sought to reshape SIG, using the most recent spending bill to make broad changes to the program, including allowing states to cook up their own turnaround strategies and submit them to the U.S. education secretary for approval.
Still, any incoming president, particularly a Democrat, is almost certain to have his or her own proposals for new competitive-grant programs, Mr. Fatemi said.
“A new administration is going to come in with new ideas,” he said, “and they’ll want to see those happen.”
By Alyson Klein