Baby Steps Toward Better Formula Grants in Education

2013-06-27-HPPicture.jpgWhen I speak with policy folks about evidence-based reform, I often hear something like this: “Sure, you can give preference points for using proven programs in competitive grants, but that doesn’t work in formula grants, like Title I and Title II, and that’s where the real money is.”

This is indeed a serious problem. Formula funding is universally popular, and educators and most policymakers argue these days for greater flexibility and local authority in the use of formula funding. After NCLB’s ham-handed efforts to force schools to use significant Title I funds on unproven (and ultimately ineffective) after-school tutoring programs and transfer provisions, there is little appetite for limitations on uses of Title I funds. Further, in a time when increases in education funding are unlikely, politically popular formula funding streams will surely remain, but less understood competitive grants are not likely to be added.

What’s the formula for increasing the use of proven programs in formula grants? Baby steps. After all, who knows formula better than babies?

The idea I’m suggesting is to gradually increase the role of evidence-proven approaches in Title I and other formula grants in a step-by-step fashion. First, find any money not firmly tied down and use it to support development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven approaches specific to a particular formula funding stream. Right now, Investing in Innovation (i3), which is funding development, validation, and scale-up of proven approaches, is playing this role for Title I; most of the i3-funded programs, if proven effective, will be immediately useful to Title I schools in addressing their most important objectives. Similar research/development/evaluation/scale-up approaches might create whole-school reforms to inform school turnaround programs, technology applications, RTI or special education approaches to support IDEA programs, and so on.

As the evidence base grows, national, state, and local leaders can exert influence to encourage use of proven models, including disseminating clear and usable information on them. This means not only websites, but also effective-methods fairs, where local educators can see new visions of what their schools could become.

The costs of robust research, development, evaluation, and dissemination are consequential, but so small compared to the formula funding streams themselves that they may be tucked into legislation or policy with little pain or notice. For example, Title I already has a 0.5% set-aside for evaluation. In a $15 billion grant program, that’s $75 million a year. Imagine if this money were added to i3 (currently $150 million a year) specifically to develop, evaluate, and scale-up turnaround models for failing schools. As more proven programs developed and flourished, Title I schools could be encouraged to use them.

The most direct application of proven approaches will always be to competitive federal funding streams, not to formula grants, but these can and should be strategically designed to serve as a step toward reforming the bigger formula funding streams. For example, imagine that NCLB had allocated a tiny proportion of its funding to development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven after-school tutoring models, and had established a competitive grant program in which applicants received preference if they used proven approaches. Had this been put into the NCLB law, by now we’d have dozens of proven, replicable after-school tutoring models operating all over the U.S., with districts clamoring to use them.

Someday, ESEA will be reauthorized. If the past is a guide, most of it will focus on accountability and formula funds, which will be endlessly debated. But alongside the big headline-catching issues, I hope there will be strong support for the baby steps that will lead to genuine transformation of America’s schools.


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