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Advocates Question Whether Administration’s Proposals Will Leave Minority Institutions Behind

More efficient, less bureaucratic government spending is always high on everyone’s list of priorities. But an Obama administration plan to consolidate dozens of education, science and community-development programs of interest to communities of color, including minority-serving institutions, continues to draw concerns from the president’s allies and adversaries alike.

At issue, will consolidation—and increased competition for federal dollars—negate minority participation in such programs or otherwise leave communities, institutions and students of color behind?

“Our children’s future should not depend on whether their state or district receives a competitive grant,” says National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, referring to Race to the Top, one of several Obama initiatives that use competition to drive reform.

The consolidation/competition proposal that has generated considerable attention is a plan to take separate National Science Foundation programs for historically Black colleges and universities and tribal colleges and fold them into a new, larger program featuring partnerships between MSIs and majority institutions. Hispanic-serving institutions, which had sought their own separate program, also would become part of this mix.

At another agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the administration’s 2011 budget also calls for realignment of MSI programs.

HUD would create a $25 million University Community Fund to replace smaller separate funding streams targeted individually at MSIs. Under the current funding structure, HBCUs receive $9 million, while HSIs and tribal colleges have $6 million and $5 million, respectively.

“Funding would be allocated by competition to universities that show innovative community-development strategies that respond to local needs and build on past experience,” says HUD spokesman Lemar Wooley. “Perhaps the best way to think of the program changes are combining the programs under one name and encouraging partnership.”

As an example, Wooley says, an institution such as Howard University could work with American or Georgetown university on a project to change an area in the District of Columbia.

But MSI leaders have concerns, noting that the realignment would force HBCUs to compete with HSIs and tribal colleges for limited funding—all while trying to attract interest from majority-White institutions for partnerships.

“Fundamentally I think it’s the wrong approach to build capacity at MSIs,” says Dr. Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. He notes there already is competition within the existing programs at NSF and HUD; as a result, not all applicants receive funding.

One concern with the administration’s proposals, says UNCF Government Affairs Director Edith Bartley, is implementation of newly consolidated initiatives—including whether MSIs have broad representation on grant review panels.

Changes to NSF and HUD programs are taking place as the Obama administration is placing an increased emphasis on consolidation and competition within federal education programs.

In its fiscal year 2011 education budget, for example, the administration proposed a consolidation of 38 existing programs into 11 new, streamlined activities—many of them with competitive grants.

“These things just keep cropping up in this budget, page after page after page of consolidations,” said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., in a recent exchange with Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Cochran said he was particularly concerned that the consolidation plans included termination of Even Start, a federal family literacy program that provides formula funding to all states. In its place would be a $450 million new competitive grant for effective literacy practices, to be awarded by competitive grants. In his state, Cochran said, Mississippi would lose $830,000 previously allotted to Even Start by formula.

“Formula grants provide a reliable stream of funding to states and local districts,” he said.

The new emphasis on competition also is prompting criticism from some Democrats’ staunchest allies. NEA’s Van Roekel took particular aim at Race to the Top, a $4.3 billion competitive grant in the 2009 economic stimulus bill designed to promote K-12 innovation. More than 40 states applied for funding during the first round of competition, but the department says only two applications—from Delaware and Tennessee—qualified for funding right now. The department says it hopes to fund 10 to 15 additional states during the next Race competition.

In the meantime, Van Roekel says, many districts are considering major cuts to teacher slots. “Now is not the time for competition,” he says. “Competition is a luxury our states should have during a budget surplus, not when they are facing record deficits and slashing jobs.”

Instead of more competition, NEA is looking for more formula funding to shore up state and local education budgets, one other element of last year’s stimulus bill. The union is urging Congress to support a $23 billion education jobs bill it says would save 150,000 education jobs.

Duncan has countered that competitive funding is needed to drive reform. “Kids at risk are not well-served by the status quo, which is why we want to continue driving reform with competitive programs,” he said.

Consolidations could support innovation as well as efficiency, he said. “We are trying to do fewer things but do them in a world-class manner.”                            

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