This week, Secretary Duncan testified before the House Appropriations committee over the U.S. Department of Education’s proposal to increase funding for competitive education grants by 6.9% at the expense of the long-standing “formula allocated” education grants, which would see a 4.9% cut. Of particular concern is the Individuals with Disability Act (IDEA) formula grant program, which helps schools pay for the additional cost of educating students with disabilities. The proposed $100 million in additional funding would not be distributed to states using the formula grant model, but instead it would be awarded to states following a competitive application process – a move which would likely hurt those with the most need.
The shift from formula to competitive grants is expected to have a sizable impact on a large share of Hispanic students, especially those with disabilities. Hispanics are overrepresented under IDEA programs when compared to the other ethnic groups, with over 8 percent of Hispanic children in the U.S. participating in the program. A large segment of Hispanic students attend school districts that often lack the resources to compete against more affluent schools, who can afford expensive grant writers and consultants to help them win competitive grant awards. This predicament puts schools most in need at a considerable disadvantage and effectively creates winners and losers in public education.
While some criticize federal formula grant programs for lacking the incentive structure to spur innovation and encourage best practices, they still ensure disbursement of tax dollars to the nation’s neediest schools. Formula grants allow Congress, who is accountable to the people it represents, rather than the Executive’s bureaucracy, to decide where tax dollars are needed and where they should go. It is a system that allows the people to design different formulas and change the way funds are distributed through an open and transparent legislative process. Competitive grants do not allow for the same transparency, and ultimately the authority to regulate how grant funds are awarded rest solely in the hands of the U.S. Department of Education.
Taking a different approach, the House Education Committee has advanced two bipartisan proposals on education reform, the first aimed at revamping research in the field of education to better evaluate the effectiveness of education programs, and the second aimed at expanding school choice opportunities. This approach attempts to put taxpayers in charge of deciding where their tax dollars should go while equipping families and school administrators with the tools they need to evaluate whether their investments in education are producing the right results. As the debate on education begins to take center stage, it is easy to see the stark contrast between those betting on the ingenuity of the local communities to drive success in education, versus an Administration that prefers the “we know best” top-down solutions that have so far produced meager results in improving our nation’s education.