In the September issue of eSchool News, there was an article titled “ED grants to Bennett’s K12 Inc. challenged,” which discussed the use of federal grant funds to establish the Arkansas Virtual Academy (see http://www.eschoolnews.com/). According to the article, the school–which uses curriculum supplied by former Education Secretary William J. Bennett’s for-profit company, K12 Inc.–has received $4 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) Voluntary Public Choice Program. But the Arkansas project scored lower in the review process than at least one other project that wasn’t funded. According to ED insiders, this is a “highly unusual occurrence.” It raises the question whether the project received preferential treatment as a result of Bennett’s–and Arkansas state officials’–political ties with the current administration.
I’ve had first-hand experience in receiving a high score during a review process and not getting funded, and it’s a frustrating situation. Several years ago, a grant proposal that I wrote was the second-highest scoring proposal in a state competition. However, the applicant I was working for was denied funding. A state education department employee called to tell us he overheard someone say the applicant had received several grants in the months prior to this competition, so it was time to “give someone else a chance.”
An ED spokeswoman, Susan Aspey, was quoted in the story as saying, “We always have the discretion to fund additional applications, and that’s exactly what happened in this case.” As a professional proposal writer, I believe this raises some serious questions that need to be examined. I sent an eMail message to Ms. Aspey asking in what document this “discretion” is explained, but I received no response from her. Perhaps a statement to this effect needs to be included in every federal RFP (Request for Proposals)–or, for that matter, in any RFP–where the funder has the “discretion” to go beyond the results of the scoring process and even make awards to those applicants who didn’t score high enough during the process.
If a funder can override the decisions of reviewers, what does this do to the integrity of the review process? Would you be willing to spend hours of your time reviewing and scoring proposals if you knew that the final funding decisions could be based on other factors that do not appear on your scoring rubric? And if, in fact, political ties play a role in the funding decision process (and sadly, I believe they often do), is it really necessary for a team of reviewers to spend valuable time reading and scoring proposals?
The question still remains how pervasive is the practice of awarding funding to applicants who scored lower than the threshold. We really have no idea how often this occurs. Traditionally, grantees are announced for awards with no mention of the score their proposals received during the review process. Perhaps it’s time for each applicant’s total score to be announced as well. This would allow those individuals who were not funded to see how close they came to receiving an award based on their score. In addition, it would be public knowledge if any applicants were the recipients of funding based on the discretion of the funder.
If you feel the same way I do about this issue, I hope you’ll pass this column along to your colleagues who write proposals and also to your local legislators to generate interest in this topic at the grassroots level. Perhaps, in your discussions, you can come up with some suggestions for how we might shed more light on the public-sector review process and make it more fair and equitable for applicants. I would be very interested in hearing your suggestions and comments for a follow-up column.
Deborah Ward, CFRE, is an independent grant writing consultant. She welcomes questions at (717) 295-9437 or Debor21727@aol.com.