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blogs.edweek.org
September 29, 2009

Race to the Top Grants: Not Just a K-12 Thing?

By Alyson Klein

States are still waiting for the final rules for the $4 billion Race to the Top grant program, which is meant to reward states for helping to close the achievement gap.

In the meantime, the U.S. House of Representatives has taken the concept (big, highly coveted pot of competitive money that the feds can use to prod states to adopt certain policies) and gone all P-16 with it.

Using some of the $87 billion in projected savings that would be freed up by a major overhaul to the student loan program, the House is looking to create three new Race-to-the-Top-like programs, one for state prekindergarten programs, one for community colleges, and another to encourage colleges to boost their retention and graduation rates.

The pre-K money, called the Early Learning Challenge grants, would amount to $8 billion over eight years and would encourage states to improve their early learning standards, provide comprehensive professional development, and assess students' readiness for success in school, among other outcomes.There would also be $10 million for grants to challenge community colleges to improve programs like transfer agreements, dual enrollment, and remediation. And there would be another $3 billion for the College Access and Completion Fund, which is intended to help colleges improve their graduation rates.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether these programs will make it into the final version of the student loan bill. (The Senate has yet to introduce its version.) And the U.S. Department of Education's implementation of these programs would determine just how Race-to-the-Top-like they end up being.

But I think these programs, which are largely based on administration proposals, give us an indication of the direction the administration and Congress are headed when it comes to education funding. Specifically, they seem to be moving away from formula grants and into competitive ones.

There was some evidence of this in the president's fiscal 2010 budget, which sought to replace a state formula grant program for school safety with more funding for a national, competitive program. It also would have shifted money to Title I School Improvement grants (which can be competitive within districts) from Title I grants to districts (a formula program that got big bucks under the stimulus).

Do you think it's good, bad, or neutral that the Obama administration and some Democrats in Congress seems to favor competitive grant programs over formula ones?

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