In Washington, it pays to have friends in high places. Literally.
A growing number of districts, schools, and education groups have learned the truth of that cliché firsthand. They’ve received grants through the Fund for the Improvement of Education, a federal program that has a vague-sounding name and all-encompassing goals: to stimulate reform and improve teaching and learning.
Members of Congress have padded the fund with hundreds of millions of dollars for local programs during the annual appropriations process. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, meanwhile, recently tapped the fund for grants to several groups, including some with ties to the Bush administration, for projects that will help further the president’s education agenda. And the program still bears the mark of former Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, who awarded multiyear grants last year for Clinton administration priorities.
Now, some Washington lawmakers and officials are concerned that the program has grown too large and strayed from its mission, becoming instead something of a parking lot for pet projects and pork. The program has raised enough hackles that Congress may move to ax it entirely or fold it into another program.
Created by Congress in 1988 with original funding of $15.6 million, the Fund for the Improvement of Education was designed to award competitive grants and contracts to advance national education priorities. Funded at $339 million for fiscal 2001, which ended Sept. 30, the Department of Education program now dispenses money in three general ways.
First, it offers competitive grants for programs of broad interest, such as character education and high school dropout prevention. Then, it finances so-called earmarks, specific programs and projects listed in annual appropriations bills. Such provisions are often added in last-minute deals between lawmakers.
Any money left over at that point is allotted to the secretary of education as a discretionary fund, allowing his office to award grants for the secretary’s specific goals on a noncompetitive basis.
In the past five years, the program’s funding has grown dramatically. Last fiscal year, its allotment increased by $95 million, from $244 million, mainly because of congressional earmarks.
The education appropriations bill for fiscal 2001 listed 14 pages of such programs. The total for that list: $140 million.
“It’s become a convenient place to quietly put all the little earmarks and special programs they wanted under the moniker ‘Fund for the Improvement of Education,’ ” said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of education groups that lobbies for more education spending. “Instead of the secretary’s discretionary fund, it’s become Congress’ discretionary fund.”
With the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, some House members are looking to consolidate the FIE and related grant programs into a larger program that allows states more choice and flexibility. Presumably, that would shield those dollars from congressional earmarks.
“The problem, as many lawmakers see it, is that [the FIE has] become a collection of earmarks and generally lacks focus at a time when we’re trying to reform education with the goal of helping disadvantaged children,” said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Both the House and Senate versions of the education spending bills for fiscal 2002 would also consolidate the FIE into a broader state grant. But the Senate version would set up a new fund"Local Innovation for Education,” funded at $300 millionthat would still allow lawmakers to earmark projects, and allot what’s left to the secretary of education.
“What’s going to happen, ultimately, is that something will be worked out to allow more money for earmarks and discretionary money,” said a Senate Democratic aide, who asked not to be named. “Everyone wants projects, so there are hundreds and hundreds of requests, and they feel if the secretary gets to pick projects, the Senate ought to as well.”
President Bush has also asked for $40 million for discretionary grants for the secretary of education through a new program called the “Reform and Innovation Fund.” Neither the House or Senate spending bill included funding for that request.
The secretary of education has always had a small pot of discretionary money to spend as needed to advance the incumbent administration’s priorities. Other agencies also have such programs.
In 1988, Congress moved the secretary’s allotment to the Fund for the Improvement of Education, a new program in that year’s ESEA reauthorization.
The amount has changed each year, depending on the shifting balance of power between Congress and the White House, said Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, based in Washington.
“If the secretary gets too much money, and is not sensitive to political proprieties, he gets into trouble,” said Mr. Jennings, a former aide to House Democrats.
Such was the case when then- Secretary Riley used the discretionary allotment to begin work on voluntary new national tests that President Clinton proposed in 1997. Republican lawmakers had quickly blocked the testing plan and were infuriated when Mr. Riley went ahead with efforts to develop the proposed tests, using his discretionary cash.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Secretary Paige had about $11 million for discretionary grants, said William D. Hansen, the deputy secretary of education.
Last month, Mr. Paige announced several grants to groups or institutions that have ties to the administration.
Mr. Paige directed $5 million to the Education Leaders Council, a group of conservative-leaning state officials co-founded by Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, to help the nonpartisan National Council on Teacher Quality establish a group to build a new system of teacher certification. (“New Organization Aims to Develop Tests for Teachers,” Oct. 17, 2001.)
The Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a San Francisco- based nonprofit group that runs charter schools, got $3.5 million. The group’s founder, Michael Feinberg, spoke to the Republican National Convention last year. Mr. Paige, when he was Houston’s superintendent of schools, helped open that district’s first KIPP Academy, a school that President Bush visited during the 2000 campaign and trumpeted it as a model for school choice and reform.
In an interview, Mr. Feinberg said the grant would be used for start- up costs of the 20 to 25 new KIPP schools planned over the next two years. His group, he said, had been turned down for other Education Department grants, but he believed this one was awarded because the group had refined its proposal and made it broader-based, not necessarily because Mr. Paige was familiar with the group.
Two grants totaling more than $1.7 million went to the University of Texas to prepare new professional-development plans and materials in reading for early-childhood educators.
In addition, Mr. Paige awarded two grants totaling $3 million to the bipartisan Education Commission of the States, based in Denver. The grant has political overtones: to help states fulfill new requirements of the administration’s proposed accountability plan in the ESEA reauthorization. All those organizations had to apply for the money through a special process for grant proposals that were not requested by the Education Department. The applications were reviewed on their own merits, Mr. Hansen said.
Ted Sanders, the president of the Education Commission for the States and a former deputy secretary of education during the first Bush administration, said all the grants had to stand on their own merit and undergo a review process within the Education Department. His group will work with four other national groups to compile information that will help the department write regulations for the upcoming ESEA reauthorization, he said.
Normally, the department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement would have to sign off on the grants. But because Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst had not yet been confirmed at the time, Mr. Hansen said he signed off on the grants.
A Little Flexibility
Many who have served in the Education Department defend the Fund for the Improvement of Education, saying it’s necessary for the secretary to have such money available without having to go through the politically charged and time-consuming route of winning congressional approval for every project department officials deem worthwhile.
“It’s always important for any Cabinet secretary to have the ability to have a little flexibility to fund priorities,” said Mr. Hansen, who also worked in the Education Department during the Reagan and Bush administrations. “It’s always been a respectful amount, but enough to allow for some innovative activities.”
But other groups say the fund’s existence taints the grant process.
“Regardless of whether it’s a Democratic or Republican administration, the temptation for politically motivated projects is very large,” said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative watchdog group in Arlington, Va.
Krista Kafer, the education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, called the fund “an invitation for pork. ... We have a lot of little, uncoordinated programs that are not focused on raising achievement.”
But, she added, “as far as having a small fund for the secretary to make grants, I don’t have a problem with that.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Paige, Congress Tap Improvement Fund for Wish List Items