USED Establishes 16 Priorities for Discretionary Grants

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Earlier this fall, you will recall that AASA replied to a USED Notice of Proposed Rules that would 'establish 13 priorities that the Department may use, as appropriate, for discretionary grant competitions in FY 2011 and future years'. AASA's comments centered on the overall over-reach of the priorities, the poorly timed, very short comment period, and the definitions of graduation rate and highly effective teacher/principal.

Today USED released the final notice on the priorities. The priorities will be used and applied to applications to competitive grants distributed by the Department of Education. While the final notice does reflect some of the comments that AASA submitted, the changes are mostly peripheral and do not temper an earlier sentiment that this an attempt to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act by means of regulations, which bypass Congress.

The notice is quick to articulate that the 'focus of any discretionary grant program is established by its authorizing legislation.' Beyond that, though, the tenor of the opening statement affirms AASA's original concerns with how establishing general priorities that can be applied, at the wish of the department, to any discretionary grant, again at the wish of the department, to shape the uses of the funds or to target the funds beyond the original intent of the legislative statute. In fact, the Department claims their right to do so, writing '....the Department often has flexibility in shaping the uses of funds for a specific discretionary grant program or in targeting funds for specific entities or needs and may, and often does, exercise that discretion by choosing to issue regulations for an individual program.' While AASA understands a case-by-case approach to shaping discretionary grants, this one-size-fits-all approach to discretionary grant priorities reads more like a side-step of the legislative process. As we submitted to the Department,

"While AASA understands the intent of the proposed priorities, we strongly oppose the use of regulations to codify and define terms and priorities that should be made through legislative process. Implementation of the proposed priorities places an increased level of control and authority within the Department, a level of authority and control that AASA believes should either rest within Congressional statute or be granted to the Department by Congress. Furthermore, while these priorities might be ok and make sense in the scenario of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, they make little sense within other programs in current law. These existing programs have existing rules and requirements relating to their application process, and changing/modifying these rules in the middle of the game, especially after SEAs and LEAs have applied for and operated under the current law and rules, would cause unnecessary headaches and additional administrative burden.

The specific language of the proposed priorities and definitions is vague. With an increase in the proportion of discretionary grants that will be moving through competitive grant instead of dedicated formulas, AASA strongly believes definitions need to be more concrete and relevant to the grant under application. Given the specific purpose of each discretionary grant program, articulation of specific priorities belongs in the grant application, not in a general catch-all of definitions and priorities.

In A Little More Detail:

The Good:

  • Priority 3 (Improving the Effectiveness/Distribution of Effective Teachers or Principals) no longer requires student achievement or growth data to be the only measure of effectiveness, thereby nullifying the need to define effective principal/teacher or highly effective principal/teacher.

The Less-Than-Good:

  • The total number grew: 13 priorities turned into 16. In addition to the 13 originally outlined, the final roster added Improving School Engagement, School Environment, and School Safety and Improving Family and Community Engagement; Technology; and Core Reforms.
  • The definition for graduation rate does not allow for flexibility around students who take more than four years to graduate.
  • The comment period was not extended. A 30-day comment period is short enough; AASA had requested an additional 30 days given that the comment period fell just as school districts were beginning their academic year, leaving busy school leaders with very little free time, let alone time to consider and respond to proposed priorities for discretionary grants.


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