Competition Heats Up for Federal Education Dollars

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When the Frederick County, Md., district moved to upgrade the computers in its elementary schools, administrators there knew where to look for funding: the federal Goals 2000 program.

Three years ago, the district received a $281,000, 18-month Goals 2000 grant to buy computers and software and provide teacher training for five elementary and two middle schools with large numbers of children from low-income families.

Frederick County is one of a growing number of districts that doggedly pursue federal, state, and private grant dollars to fill in the gaps in their annual budgets. Their rising interest comes at the same time that congressional Republicans are talking about compacting targeted education grant programs into larger, less regulated block grants.

"As funding gets tighter, people are becoming more aggressive in pursuing grants," said Stephen K. Hess, Frederick County's director of curriculum support, innovation, and evaluation.

About $350,000 of the 35,000-student district's $200 million annual operating budget comes from a variety of competitive grants, he said, and district leaders want to increase that figure.

Administrators "are more pressured by the needs within schools and school systems to enhance their programs and add programs," said Jacqueline Ferguson, who heads a Tucson, Ariz., grants-consulting firm.

A growing number of administrators, teachers, and outside consultants are "working on overload" to research and apply for education grants, she added.

It's a tantalizing draw for educators: Millions of dollars in government and private grants ready to be handed out for much-needed projects, all for the asking.

But reaching the pot of gold can be challenging.

It starts with finding a program that fits a district's desires, and then confronting a myriad of application forms and the tricky task of writing a winning proposal.

Some districts persuade a teacher or administrator to take on the task, or choose not to pursue such grants at all. Other, typically larger districts may hire several full-time grants specialists.

The Frederick County district last year hired a part-time grant-proposal writer to keep track of its submissions and watch for opportunities.

Collaborative Projects

A smaller district might call in someone like Deborah Weagley.

As a grant-development specialist representing the 18 districts in the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, Pa., Ms. Weagley's job is to research the vast array of federal, state, and private grants available for school projects, and pull together interested districts to write a proposal for a collaborative project. She also works as a consultant to other districts.

Ms. Weagley agreed that the competition for grants is increasing.

"The grants world has, probably in the last three to five years, become just incredibly competitive," she said. It's not unusual now to compete with 1,500 other districts for a federal grant, she added.

Proposals supported by many Republicans that would turn most federal spending into block grants for the states would kill many of the competitive grant programs the Education Department currently administers. Under a block-grant formula, the money would be distributed as general aid to states.

Currently, competitive grants make up $1.5 billion of the Education Department's $34.8 billion budget.

Funding Boosts

Funding for some federal competitive-grant programs has increased in recent years. One such instance is the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, an after-school program highly touted by President Clinton.

Funding for the program jumped from $1 million in fiscal 1997 to $40 million for fiscal 1998, and Mr. Clinton has proposed increasing funding 400 percent, to $200 million, for 1999.

The Education Department received a record-setting 16,000 inquiries about the program this year, with about 2,000 applications, said Terry K. Peterson, a counselor and senior adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. He expects that 200 to 300 of those applicants will receive grants.

Robert M. Stonehill, director of the department's state and local services division, said his colleagues see a wide range of quality in grant applications. The department has noted a marked increase in the sources of those applications, he added.

Mr. Hess of Frederick County added that, in recent years, his district has had to upgrade its applications by offering more evidence of how a specific proposal would make a difference in the classroom.

"Far more sophistication is expected and required," he said. "It means we have to do a better job."

Despite rising interest, some consultants say that districts are still missing out on funding that could make the difference between mediocre educational projects and outstanding ones.

"There are funds out there that are unreal if people know how to get to them," said John H. Holcomb, a professor at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, who also coordinates seminars on grantwriting for educators.

Phale D. Hale, a well-known consultant who owns a firm in Washington, said the investment in a good grant-proposal writer usually returns dividends quickly. "Any school district that increases its capacity to write grants, it's nearly paid for in the first year," he said.

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