Tag Archives: race to the top

Grants.gov Dies Again: The Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) Competition Eschews the Feds’s Main Grant Portal

Last year, Isaac noted this about the vaunted Race to the Top-District competition:

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.

This year, page 5 of the RFP (as paginated at the footer; as paginated by Word, it’s page 6) says:

Applications for grants under this competition must be submitted in electronic format on a CD or DVD, with CD-ROM or DVD-ROM preferred, by mail or hand delivery. The Department strongly recommends the use of overnight mail.

We’ve had Grants.gov for about a decade. Every time we hear about government interest in technology and transparency and environmentalism, we think about putting a plastic disk in a FedEx envelop and launching it by truck/jet/truck to the Department of Education, where it is printed.

A lot of carbon emissions and folderol could be eliminated by a Grants.gov upload. The Department of Education also warns that, if they can’t open the files on your CD and print your application, they’ll simply throw it out.

Last year, by the way, it took us—people who do this all the time—hours to figure out how to create a technically correct submission package. We’ve learned, through blood and tears, the challenges of Grants.gov. Now we’ve got yet another weird system, courtesy of Arne Duncan’s bureaucratic brain trust, to slay.

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.

Hurricane Sandy and the Election Combine to Blow Away the RFPs

Dedicated readers of our e-mail grant newsletter have probably noticed how slender it’s been over the last four weeks. The newsletter isn’t slender because we’re reluctant to share grant opportunities with you—it’s slender because federal and state governments haven’t been issuing very many RFPs, and they’ve been issuing even fewer interesting RFPs of the sort that nonprofit and public agencies are likely to apply for. Whatever the merits of, say, the Tunisia Community College Scholarship Program or Research Using Biosamples from Selected Type 1 Diabetes Clinical Studies, they’re undeniably specialized programs that are unlikely to interest the vast majority of our subscribers.

Like any good grant Kremlinologists, we have to admit that we don’t know everything and can only make reasonable inferences based on limited data. With that caveat in mind, our best guess about the RFP drought is that DC has been hit with two major punches: Hurricane Sandy and the election. The former hasn’t done too much damage to Washington itself, but preparing for it set the city back by a couple of days, and the Northeast corridor still hasn’t recovered. The situation is sufficiently bad that deadlines are also being extended because of the chaos in the Northeast. The Race To The Top—District (RTTT-D) program, for example, had its deadline extended, but at first the Department of Education didn’t give a new deadline. The actual extension dates—Nov. 2 for everyone else and Nov. 7 for those affected by Sandy—took a couple of days.

The election shouldn’t directly impact the grant cycle, but it does because DC is a company town, and everyone in the town is waiting to see what’s going to happen at the top. Although the civil service employees who actually run grant competitions won’t be directly affected by the winners and losers of Tuesday’s elections, their political appointee masters will be, and the tenor of what’s happening in each department may change. As a result, it’s not infrequent to see this kind of federal torpor right before an election, and that, we think, is why you’ve seen such thin newsletters recently. Not to worry, though, because there should be a “storm surge” of RFPs when the bureaucracy rises from its election lassitude.

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.

Breaking News: The Department of Education Announces Race to the Top–District (RTTT-D) Program with $400 Million for LEAs!

EDIT: The RFP has finally been issued—two months a day after this post was first published.

The Department of Education will issue an RFP for the Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) program around July 1. There will be about $400 million up for grabs. Local Education Agencies (“LEAs,” which is education-speak for school districts) with at least 2,500 students, of whom at least 40% are low-income, will be eligible to compete for grants up to $25 million or so.

This is the first time LEAs have been eligible to apply directly to the feds for RTTT funds. Even better, the Department of Education must obligate the funds by December 31, so this is going to be Fast and Furious grant making that favors the prepared applicant. Based on recent Department of Education RFP cycles, I assume there will be about 30 days from the RFP publication to the deadline. If they meet the July 1 publication target, the proposal preparation period will include the 4th of July, which falls on a Wednesday this year. Lots of civilians will aim for a five-day vacation, while us grant writers will be tossing another gerund on the barbie.*

RTTT-D is an extraordinary opportunity for LEAs. Given the uncertain political climate and budget constraints, it might be a long time until LEAs are again able to apply for substantial funds to essentially do anything they want, as long as the it conforms to the loosey-goosey reforms of RTTT. If I were a LEA administrator, I would already be developing my RTTT-D proposal. Gentlewomen and gentlemen, start your grant engines.


* “Tossing” is a gerund for those readers who like to diagram sentences (actually, it’s a gerund for all readers). Here is Dave Barry’s take on diagramming sentences:

Q. Please explain how to diagram a sentence.

A. First spread the sentence out on a clean, flat surface, such as an ironing board. Then, using a sharp pencil or X-Acto knife, locate the “predicate,” which indicates where the action has taken place and is usually located directly behind the gills. For example, in the sentence: “LaMont never would of bit a forest ranger,” the action probably took place in a forest. Thus your diagram would be shaped like a little tree with branches sticking out of it to indicate the locations of the various particles of speech, such as your gerunds, proverbs, adjutants, etc.