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DeVos Wants to Steer Grant Money to School Choice, STEM, and More

By Alyson Klein — October 11, 2017 5 min read
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Want a better shot of getting federal grant money out of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ department? You may want to consider pitching a project with a STEM, workforce development, competency-based education, or literacy focus—or one that embraces school choice, including for disadvantaged groups of students. And you should find a way to show how you are giving taxpayers good bang for their buck.

Here’s why: The department gives away at least $700 million in competitive-grant money every year. Every administration sets “priorities” for that funding. The Trump administration published its draft list in the Federal Register Wednesday. These matter because applicants that include one—or more—of those priorities in a grant proposal are more likely to get money.

So what priorities are the Trump Education Team proposing? There are 11. Some are clearly long-standing GOP priorities, like school choice. But others, like improving economic opportunity through things like early-childhood education and creating a positive school climate, aren’t so different from what the Obama administration championed. (DeVos and company put on their twist on these things, however.)

Mike Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said it’s hard to tell at this point what on this priority list, is well, a real priority.

“This is like a Christmas tree, with all kinds of shiny objects,” said Petrilli, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush. “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 that they can later choose from for individual programs. They are going to have to be selective at some point, because if everything and everyone is a priority than nothing and no one is.”

The priorities:

School Choice: Unsurprisingly, the department wants to steer money to applicants who “increase the proportion of students with access to educational choice.” The agency is especially interested in applicants that offer choice to rural students, or disadvantaged populations, including kids living in poverty, English-language learners, students in special education, and racial minorities. (We mentioned this was a possibility in this blog post.)

Promoting Innovation/Streamlining Education, with an increased focus on improving student outcomes: The department wants to get states and districts looking for federal grant money to find ways to spur innovation and cut red tape. Critics worry, though, that the department may prioritize saving money and cutting regulations over protecting vulnerable students.

Fostering Flexible and Affordable Paths to Obtaining Knowledge and Skills: Applicants would get priority for embracing things like competency-based education, partnering with local employers, and helping students get career-certification for in-demand jobs.

Fostering Knowledge and Promoting the Development of Skills That Prepare Students to Be Productive Citizens: This priority is all about those “soft skills” that employers say students need, including problem-solving, perseverance, time-management, and financial literacy. The department specifically mentions “computer coding boot camps” which critics say are on their way out the door and shouldn’t be a priority. Critics also worry that the priority could mean the department will fund programs that will give disadvantaged kids a limited credential, instead of preparing them for a range of jobs.

Meeting Needs of Students with Disabilities or Special Talents: This is about helping students in special education and gifted kids reach their full potential.

Promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) With a Particular Focus on Computer Science: This priority isn’t exactly a shocker. The White House announced last month that it wanted the department to direct $200 million in grant money to STEM and computer science. That’s a sizeable chunk of the money the department has available to dole out. There is supposed to be a special focus on populations that aren’t well represented in the STEM field, including racial and ethnic minorities, and women.

Promoting Literacy: The department is especially interested in funding approaches to reading and writing that are backed by evidence.

Promoting Effective Instruction in Classrooms and Schools: This is about teacher and leadership development, including supporting the recruitment and retention of a diverse teaching force. Programs could get a leg up if they can recruit midcareer professionals, like former military leaders, to the profession.

Promoting Economic Opportunity: This is a wide-ranging priority and could steer money to projects that offer students so-called “wraparound services,” such as early-childhood education, help get parents involved in their child’s school, or create or expand partnerships between states and district and community-based organizations.

Encouraging Improved School Climate and Safer and More-Respectful Interactions: This is about combating bullying and disruption and giving all students a chance to freely express diverse viewpoints.

Ensuring that Service Members and Their Families Have Access to High-Quality Educational Choice: This would encourage schools to serve the special needs of military-connected kids who have to cope with stresses like a parent’s transfer or long deployment.

Importantly these are just suggested priorities, for now. The department is looking for comment on them from the field, and could make changes. You have 30 days from the time the notice is officially published Oct. 12 to tell them what you think. More instructions here.

Photo: Ivanka Trump, second from right, speaks with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., right, before President Donald Trump signs a memorandum in the Oval Office of the White House on Sept. 25 to expand access to STEM education. (Alex Brandon/AP)