New Brief: After Winning, Then What?

Without the reauthorization of any major education laws and despite the confines of a notoriously gridlocked Congress, the Obama administration has managed to shake up the education field and ignite reform across the country over the last six years. The President has pursued his education agenda through a series of competitive grant programs with dollars secured from Congress in the (slightly less gridlocked) spending bill process. Through these initiatives, the President has infused new funds into the country’s education system and accelerated reform at the state, school district, and community level in order to improve student achievement.

These grants have played a large role in triggering changes in the early education space, which has been a growing priority for the Obama administration. And while the competitions themselves tend to receive attention from policymakers and the media, the actual implementation process, which is critical to the success of the program, is too often overlooked. Last year, for New America’s Early Education Initiative, journalist Paul Nyhan conducted case studies of winners of four competitive grant programs that have benefited the early education field-- Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC), the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), Investing in Innovation (i3), and Promise Neighborhoods-- to discover what happens after the awards are doled out.

We’ve compiled these case studies into After Winning, Then What? An Inside Look at Four Winners  of Federal Early Education Grant Competitions, a policy brief providing an overview of the four grant programs and offering an inside look at the implementation process. This brief reveals what kind of progress is possible -- and what limitations exist -- when policies are advanced through small competitive grants.

Nyhan examines how:

  • Washington State is using its $60 million RTT-ELC grant to improve early learning programs;
  • Detroit has applied SIF funding to evaluate the effectiveness of its early childhood programs;
  • The University of Minnesota is scaling up the renowned Chicago Parent-Child Centers model with i3 funds; and
  • San Antonio is improving school-readiness with comprehensive and community-based supports as part of its Promise Neighborhood project.
Each of these programs has its own specific focus, yet they all place an emphasis on data collection and rigorous evaluation. Grantees must follow the rules of their  grants, but also have substantial room for flexibility-- in line with its approach to be “tight on goals but loose on means.” An overarching goal of these programs has been to foster innovation and then determine “what works”, so  that the federal government can make targeted, evidence-based funding decisions in the future.

While these initiatives have managed to be sustained over the past several years, their future is looking relatively bleak. Most of the President’s competitive grant programs have been dealt drastically reduced funding in his second term, and the recently passed fiscal year 2015 spending bill completely eliminated funding for Race to the Top, which also impacts RTT-ELC. And with the next Congress under GOP-control, it’s unlikely that these other programs will continue either.

Even though these programs might not receive substantial funding in the next Congress, there are still important lessons to be learned. Nyhan reveals how these programs have helped accelerate reform in early education in several states and communities as well as why flexibility and adaptability are essential to successful implementation. He also explains how grantees have overcome obstacles related to ambitious timelines and program evaluation.

Read the full brief, available here, to find out more about these competitive grant programs and how implementation is faring for grantees.



Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Early & Education Education team, where she provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade