Tag Archives: Department of Education

The Department of Education’s Student Support Services (SSS) is Here, and We’ve Already Written the Post

A month ago we published “Department of Education Grants Are All About Going to College and Completing A Four-Year Degree,” and last week the Department of Education obliged by publishing the Student Support Services (SSS) RFP. This is one of the TRIO programs, which we’ve also written about before. These programs are explicitly about getting kids to graduate college:

The purpose of the SSS Program is to increase the number of disadvantaged, low-income college students, first-generation college students, and college students with disabilities in the United States who successfully complete a program of study at the postsecondary level.

And “complete a program of study” means, ultimately, “four-year college.” But community colleges are still great applicants because they can argue that they’re a vital step on the road to the four-year degree.

SSS is a particularly interesting program, however, because of the dollars involved: $300 million of them, with grants of $220,000/year for five years. For community colleges, who are among the better applicants for SSS, that’s a lot of money. The clients we’ve worked for who’ve gotten SSS grants have always been very happy with them.

The other interesting part of the program is the RFP release date, which happened right before Christmas break, when many college applicants go into sleep mode until after the new year. The deadline is February 2nd, so for many potential college applicants, this means effectively less than four weeks to write what is a fairly complex proposal. You can thank the ED for this lump of coal in applicants’ stockings.

Department of Education Grants Are All About Going to College and Completing A Four-Year Degree

Certain things about grant writing can only be learned by reading between the lines: that requires reading individual RFPs carefully, reading many RFPs, interacting with various organizations, interacting with program officers, and the like. This is a post about reading Department of Education (DOE)* RFPs, which means reading “between the lines;” whatever else a particular DOE RFP may require, they really want kids to graduate from four-year colleges. Almost every DOE program—whether it targets four year olds, eight year olds, or eighteen year olds—has to claim that it’ll make more kids attend and graduate from a four-year college.**

The graduate-from-college goal comes from the DOE’s relentless focus on the fact that college graduates on average make a lot more money than non-college graduates. This, however, may be a causation fallacy—college graduates are different in many other respects from people who haven’t finished college—but if you’re writing a DOE proposal, you’re not trying to debate or change policy. You’re trying to give the funder what they want, and the DOE wants college graduates. Bryan Caplan is writing a book called The Case Against Education that argues education is actually a signaling arms race and that most education is socially wasteful and not particularly useful.

I don’t want to start a dispute about the correctness of Caplan’s claims or the DOE’s view in this forum—I’m being descriptive, not proscriptive, here—but I do want you to know that there is a big, often unstated corollary to almost any DOE grant program. It may be true that DOE is behind the times and has forgotten that college is probably not a panacea for economic inequality. It is true, however, that both the American political left and the American political right are broadly pro-education, since they associate education with both work and opportunity.

Your proposal should be broadly pro-college whether you’re a nonprofit, a Local Education Agency (LEA), or an Institution of Higher Education (IHE), and you should definitely announce that your program will increase college attendance and graduation rates. That’s true even for an elementary school project: argue that your program will cause today’s six year olds to graduate in sixteen years. Will your program actually increase the number of graduates? Maybe. In the real world no one really tracks the outcomes of the product of individual school districts and even if they did, that information might not be real useful: what happens if a kid moves three times and has three different school district experiences, and the graduating school is the very last one? These kinds of issues arise in many evaluation sections, and we bring the issue up because it’s a specific example of the general principle that evaluation sections are more theater than reality.

As we’ve written before, there are various “grant waves” that strike due to changes in the economy, changes in what the commentariat is discussing, changes in technology, or changes in policy / politics. From 2000 – 2008, for example, a series of programs to prevent teen pregnancy through abstinence education were big. Since the Great Recession, job training has gotten big. Next year it may be something else. Regardless of the changes, however, you should try to see them coming and be aware of what’s happening in the larger world.

Incidentally, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) is always about two things: getting people insured and providing enhanced access to primary health care for low-income people. If you see a HRSA program, include those two components. The first has really come to the fore since the ACA passage. The second has been around longer but has arguably grown in prominence. I’m writing this at the end of 2014. In four years HRSA and DOE may have different priorities. But for now, you’re going to be a more successful applicant if you promise what we’re suggesting you promise.


* There are actually two federal “DOEs,” the Department of Education and the Department of Energy. Take it up with your congressperson.

** I don’t mean to slight community colleges, but DOE wants kids to get four-year degrees, not two-year degrees or certificates. Community colleges can’t get no respect (though they do get a fair amount of grant money). Once again, take it up with your congressperson.

About 20 years ago Isaac went to a bidders’ conference in Seattle about the DOE’s Student Support Services (SSS) program, which funds community colleges and is one of the several “TRIO” programs. The program officers droned on about pointless, obfuscated minutia; the audience was naturally beyond bored. Suddenly, a very large man sitting next to Isaac stood up and said loudly more or less: “Why do you guys keep jabbering on. You just want more kids to graduate from a four-year college. Isn’t that the whole point of TRIO?”

The audience sprang to life with applause, as the program officers admitted that was the case. Isaac talked to the guy afterward, and he’d been running a TRIO program in Illinois for years and knew SSS better than the presenters. Isaac says this is the only time he ever learned anything useful at a bidder’s conference—and this nugget was really revealed between the lines.

The Grantnado Continues: The Department of Education Finally Issues the GEAR-UP RFP—and $650M for Early Head Start

As I predicted last January, the Department of Education has issued the FY ’14 Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR-UP) RFP. While it took longer than I thought, the RFP butterfly has finally emerged from the hidden DOE cocoon. My previous post asked: Why do federal agencies usually keep prospective RFP issuance dates for programs like GEAR UP a secret?

I don’t have any idea why DOE behaves this way, but it’s detrimental to applicants.

The GEAR UP RFP was not issued unit June 4 and the proposals are due July 7—conveniently just after the 4th of July holiday. This means that applicants only have about 30 days to complete a very complex proposal. If they (or, let’s be honest: you) actually want to enjoy the 4th of July weekend, applicants really only have about three weeks to get the job done. If you’re a faithful GWC reader, however, you’d have known the GEAR-UP RFP was coming and could have been working on your proposal well in advance of the RFP being issued.

By the way, GEAR-UP is similar to the many TRIO Programs.* While the various TRIO programs have differing approaches, they all share the same basic goal: to increase the number of low-income students, minority students and/or students with disabilities completing high school, as well as earn a college degree. GEAR-UP is intended to help the same target groups “gear up” for postsecondary education through after school academic enrichment activities during middle and high school.

Continuing the self-congratulatory theme of this post, ACF just issued a huge RFP for the Early Head Start program. This bad boy has $650M up for grabs and 300 grants will be awarded for early childhood education providers. At least the deadline for EHS, August 20, is reasonable—unlike the psychotic GEAR UP deadline.

Last October, Jake predicted that the then-government shutdown and budget deal would lead to a Grantnado of RFPs, as the feds untangled the RFP logjam. The late issuance of the EHS RFP illustrates that the feds have to move money out of the door in any given fiscal year; FY ’14 is unusual because lots of big RFPs are still being issued relatively late in the fiscal year.


* When Jake taught upper division Technical Writing at the University of Arizona, he assigned writing a mock program plan for the Educational Opportunity Centers (EOCs) program—which is part of TRIO—primarily because the EOC RFP was on the street at the time and he’d just finished one, so he was very familiar with the RFP and program. As Jake wrote in this post, his students—all of whom were college juniors and seniors—were mostly unable to write coherent EOC program plans. Perhaps they would have done better if they’d been GEAR UP participants in high school.

Someone in the Federal Government REALLY Wants School Kids Counseled, as the “School Climate Transformation Grant Program” Shows

This week’s e-mail grant newsletter included this long-winded program title: “Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE): School Climate Transformation Grant Program: Local Educational Agency Grants.” The program’s purpose is to offer yet more school counseling, although the RFP uses 50 words where five will due; it says the purpose is to “develop, enhance, or expand systems of support for, and technical assistance to, schools implementing an evidence-based multi-tiered behavioral framework for improving behavioral outcomes and learning conditions for all students.” I became exhausted reading this sentence several times—it’s a nice example of bureaucratic word salad.

Sound familiar? It should. We’ve seen a spate of nearly identical program RFPs recently, including:

All five programs have subtly different project descriptions but are all intended to engage in the same basic set of activities: getting “trained” adults to do something—on a one-on-one or small group basis—with students who have been reported by teachers or other “trained” adults in the kids’ lives. You could submit a proposal for any one of these programs, change the name on the header of the next proposal, and do more or less the same thing. The only exception is the last one, YEP II, which is less a Columbine-Newtown-response-style program and more of a traditional urban youth program of the sort that have been around for forty years.

In 2012 Isaac wroteSandy Hook School Shootings Tragedy Likely to Lead to New Grant Opportunities for School Security, After School and Mental Health Project Concepts.” The programs we’re seeing the Federal government issue are the ones Isaac predicted.

At their most basic level,* these programs are really mental health early warning systems: they’re trying to figure out which ninth grader is likely to bring a gun or knife to school this week. They’re like Foucault’s famous panopticon, or the Stasi, though better intentioned. We’re not convinced the effort will be successful, but it’s happening right now, and no one in the Federal government asked for our opinion. Smart LEAs and nonprofits are going to ride this grant wave.


* Free proposal phrase.

My first bidders conference, or, how I learned what I already knew

In January I went to and got kicked out of my first bidders conference. For those of you not familiar with the practice, bidders conferences are largely pointless schmooz-fests for potential grant applicants. Aside from being there to show the flag to program officers and to preen in front of potential competitors, bidders conferences are useless because almost every RFP will issue a disclaimer like this one:

if the NYCDOE issues an addendum with a digest of the inquiries made and answers given at the pre-proposal conference, proposers shall rely on the information contained in such addendum rather than those given orally at the conference.

This language kills accountability and applicants can’t rely on anything that’s said at a bidders conference. They can only rely on the words in the RFP. As a result, most bidders conferences will at best confuse potential applicants. Anyone who sees something amiss in an RFP would be better served to seek an amendment rather than pester the low-level bureaucrats at a bidders conference. Bidders conferences are great for grant writing consultants, however, because they gather a lot of potential clients in one small space.

Back to my story about being ejected. I arrived at the New York City Department of Education’s (NYC DOE) Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) bidders conference a few minutes early, with marketing fliers in one hand and business cards in the other. Almost no one else was there, so I chatted with the staffers hanging out. There were at least four and maybe half a dozen DOE staff there. I had no idea what they were doing, other than make-work.

People slowly started showing up. A staffer said I could leave flyers next the sign-in table. I said hi and chatted with whoever was wandering by until an older DOE staffer showed up, grabbed the flyers, and brought them over to the recycling bin. I asked her not to chuck them—we put time and energy to getting them made! She gave them back and told me to leave.

As usual I played jailhouse lawyer—public facility, First Amendment, etc.—but she wasn’t having any of it and found a fat security rent-a-cop guy (the conference was being held in downtown Brooklyn at a small college auditorium) who had no doubt kicked many people out of many places.

I left, though I suspect that there’s a real First Amendment case to be made: I wasn’t interfering with the proceedings and it’s a public meeting. But my goal was to get nonprofits to hire us to write their UPK proposals, not be an ACLU test case.*

It was January in New York, which meant that nasty weather was a possibility and that day it was indeed raining. Nonetheless the attendees did show up and took my flyers, which, in keeping with our general style, are bright, eye-catching and obnoxious (but very effective).

About 30 to 40 percent of the bidders looked at me like I’d just taken a dump in front of them. Another 20 or so percent were actively excited. The rest seemed confused. By and large, nonprofit personnel don’t want to be seen consorting with grant writers, much as married men don’t want to be seen with ladies of the evening, so they don’t want to smile and say hi. One woman asked where we were three years ago, when she’d first gotten her UPK contract. Grant writing is one of those things, like house cleaning, that people want to pay someone else to do.

Despite the reactions I got in the flesh, I can say that based on the number of calls we got and UPK proposals we wrote, it’s apparent that a lot of people liked us regardless of how they behaved with their peers watching.

I look forward to the next Bidder’s Conference. When I was too young to attend these events, Isaac used to go to them wearing a brightly colored Seliger + Associates T-shirt, emblazoned with our logo, 800 number and slogan, “We know where the money is!”

We did then and still do.


* I am an ACLU member: I may disagree with what you see but will fight for your right to say it.

California Issues An RFA for the 21st CCLC Program, Illustrating Why You Should Remember Old Grant Programs

As we’ve written before, grant availability moves in waves, with funding rising to meet new challenges. For example, the advent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan caused a host of nonprofits to spring up and provide support to wounded veterans. Funders, particularly foundations, rushed to offer significant grants. With the wars winding down, it is getting harder for such nonprofits to claim urgency and foundations are likely moving on to address emerging problems.

In the government funding world, however, things are different. Congress is always ready to create new programs, such as the huge Health Navigators program and dozens of other healthcare-related discretionary grant programs created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”), but it behooves nonprofits not to forget about long-standing programs. They may seem to be buried in the background as zombie grant programs, but they often retain significant funding. With the de facto replacement of federal budgets by continuing resolutions in recent years, most discretionary programs are refunded year after year, with cost of living increases.*

For an example of an old program that has lots of money and remains relevant to provide needed services, check out 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLCs). It’s been around since the days of Columbine but remains one of the best ways of funding after school enrichment activities. Since there has been no reduction in school shootings, bullying, and disappointing educational outcomes in general, after school programming should be of interest to nonprofits and schools. We wrote extensively about the 21st CCLC program as an illustration of federal pass-through funding two years ago and since then nothing has changed.

California just issued Requests for Applications (RFA) for its 21st CCLC Program for Elementary and Middle Schools, along with the 21st Century High School ASSETs program. There’s $36,000,000 up for grabs, Pay attention even in you’re not in California, since 21st CCLC is a federal pass-through program and funding exists in every state. If your agency is at all interested in after school programming, it’s a good idea to check with your state department of education to figure out when you can apply. A nice aspect of 21st CCLC grants is that they’re for five-year projects, so if you get a grant, you’ll be operating the project for a fair amount of time.


* There is the minor annoyance of budget sequestration, which may have some impact on discretionary grant programs but so far hasn’t been discernible to us. Besides which, it looks like the Republicans in Congress will probably trade sequestration cuts for entitlement reform in the upcoming budget negotiations. No one knows the future, but this is one plausible future.

The Bizarre RTTT-D RFP Competition Lurches to the Finish

Feeling like exhausted runners at the finish of the now-cancelled New York City Marathon, we recently met the then-deadline for a couple of Department of Education Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) proposals we’ve been slaving over for the last few weeks. To say this RFP was complex is to not do justice to the word, as it consisted of the 101-page Notice from the Federal Register, as well as the 116-page Application Guidelines, the 33-page FAQ file, and nested Excel budget worksheets.

It is a seldom equaled collection of educatorese, bureaucratese, embedded forms, contradictory directions, and plain stupidity. I’m not sure I’ve seen the like of it in 40 years of grant writing and 20 years at the helm of the good ship Seliger + Associates, and I’ve seen a lot. But, like Phidippides at the first Marathon, we made it to the finish line.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of this oddball RFP process were the submission requirements. For reasons obscured by the fog of government ineptitude, the Department of Education chose not to use its G5 system, which recently replaced their “eGrants” digital submission portal, or our old pal, grants.gov.

Instead, we were suddenly back in 1997, with a requirement for an original and two hard copies, along with the proposal files on a CD! I guess the Department of Education has not read the digital memo about saving paper. One proposal we completed was 270 pages, with appendices. Another was 170 pages.

The 270 page Sumo-sized proposal was so fat that we couldn’t find big enough binder clips and had to roll with gigantic rubber bands for fasteners. In the 250 pages of assorted directions, including detailed directions for burning the CD, they forgot to say where the appendix file was supposed to go. Plus, the final document was supposed to be submitted in Adobe Acrobat, be “readable,” and be paginated. We are pretty handy with Acrobat, know how to do this manipulation, and have the hardware horsepower to handle and print massive files (try spooling a 270 page print file with dozens of embedded images or knitting together 25 Acrobat files into a single 33-meg file), so we figured out a workable approach.

But this would have been daunting or virtually impossible for the average civilian grant submitter. Of course, most of this folderol was completely unnecessary, but where’s the fun in a simple and straightforward RFP process to the Philosopher Kings at the Department of Education. Oh, but it does keep us in business, so I guess I should be grateful for endemic (free proposal word here) bureaucratic myopia.

As we were finishing these proposals, it because clear that Hurricane Sandy was going to hit the Northeast. Even though Washington is nowhere near the coast, the feds shut down last Monday, October 29, and Tuesday, October 30—the day of the original RTTT-D deadline. The brave GS-11s and 12s at the Department of Education quickly flung out an email extending the deadline, as they raced back to their cozy burrows. Even though we correctly guessed that the deadline would be extended, we prudently acted as if it wouldn’t be (this is always a good idea in grant writing), and our proposals were winging their way to D.C. via FedEx by the time the extension was announced (Jake wrote more about this and the other strange effects in “Hurricane Sandy and the Election Combine to Blow Away the RFPs.”

After a cocktail or three to contemplate RTTT-D, it was time to sweep up the shop floor and tackle our next set of deadlines. Such is the life of grant writing consultants. Our road always brings us forward and seldom leaves us much time to reflect.

Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) is Finally Here

Back in June, we got excited about the imminent announcement for the Department of Education’s Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) Program. Then we waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Today, however, two months and a day after our post, the Department of Education finally released the complete application package. Some of the highlights include 70 pages of narrative and 117 pages of RFP. There’s a non-mandatory letter of intent (LOI) due by August 30 (from page 5 of the RFP: “Applicants that do not complete this form may still apply for funding.”). The federal deadline is October 30, but— and this is a big “but”—applicants have to allow ten business days in advance of the federal deadline for review by the state department of education and the mayor of the relevant jurisdiction(s). The means that the real deadline appears to be October 17!

We usually send our the Seliger Funding Report on Monday morning, which means we’d have to wait another week to get this breaking news to our subscribers and readers. But, given the time-sensitive nature and complexity of the application, and its liar deadline, we want to make sure as many potential applicants know about this $400,000,000 RFP as possible.

Behind the Article: Las Vegas’s Clark County and Race To The Top—District (RTTT-D)

In a press release masquerading as a news article, The Las Vegas Sun claims that the Clark County School District—the big one that covers Vegas—doesn’t want to apply for Race To The Top—District funds because they have “too many strings attached.” The strings aren’t that different from those that come with any very large grant program. And most of those strings are imaginary anyway.

Which means there’s something else going on.

The reporter, Paul Takahashi, writes, “There is also an expectation that school districts scale up these innovations after the Race to the Top pilot program ends, said Kimberly Wooden, chief student services officer.” Notice the weasel words: “There is also an expectation.” An expectation from who? How? In another choice quote, Takahashi writes:

“It’s a great idea, but in order to bring it to scale in a district our size, it may require technology,” Wooden said, adding there may be additional costs incurred to the School District to implement this technology.

Getting a grant that “may require technology”—whatever that means—sounds like a tremendous trial. This is the second example of weasel words I’ve quoted, and there are others.

It’s highly likely that there’s something else going on behind the scenes. Here are some possibilities:

  • The school district actually wants to apply, but it doesn’t like some aspect of the competition and wants a waiver or exception. As such, it’s threatening to take its ball and go home if the Department of Education doesn’t play by its rules. This kind of article might help get that exception. The district might be looking for a signal or reassurance from the feds.
  • As an addendum to the bullet above, the school district might already be negotiating with the Department of Education, and this kind of public statement is part of the negotiation process.
  • The district thinks it doesn’t have a real shot at the grant and wants to preemptively cover its ass by announcing that it doesn’t want the grant anyway. This yields a story to tell reporters and angry parents at school board meetings.
  • The district has already screwed up something we don’t know about.
  • There is some political reason the district, the teachers union, the city counsel, the mayor, the governor, or another political entity doesn’t want the district to apply (this is an election year, too, and RTTT-D is one of the rare Federal programs that generates mainstream media coverage; in addition, although presidential politics might not be the driving force, Slate.com’s John Dickerson thinks Obama has a shot in Nevada). Perhaps there’s already a deal in place to offer more or less restricted money.

It’s possible that the district’s story as presented by Takahashi is true. It’s just highly unlikely. The political people and grant writers at the district know or should know the difference between the proposal world and the real world. They know that you have to apply to get the money (one of the school board members says as much). They know there’s a fair amount of money available, and that it would be a handy PR win if the district got the reward, and, moreover, most people and institutions like money. Given those facts, the stated reason for not applying—which amounts to, “it’s too hard”—doesn’t pass the smell test.

This kind of speculation only makes sense in the context of a district large enough to generate political gravity. Smaller districts that claim they don’t want to apply are probably simply telling the truth, or don’t have the political will to apply. For a very large district, like this one, which has access to grant writers or funds for grant writing consultants, something else is almost certainly going on, and the Las Vegas Sun is only being used as a messenger.

Have you seen a Federal agency request a low-quality program? And The Language of the Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL) Program

The Department of Education’s Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL) Program RFP begins by saying that IAL “supports high-quality programs designed to develop and improve literacy skills for children and students from birth through 12th grade within the attendance boundaries of high-need local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools.” Have you ever seen a Federal department—or a foundation, for that matter—request “low-quality programs?” Or even “medium-quality programs?”

Neither have I. Which means the Department of Education could accomplish the same goal—that is, expressing the goal of the program—with fewer words. That’s a component of good writing, and good writing could be considered a component of literacy. Of course, one could always submit a proposal stating that the applicant is not only going to implement a low-quality program, but is also going to Take the Money and Run.*


* A fun 1969 film from when Woody Allen still made funny movies.