On Friday, April 30, the day the Department of Education released its notice for the forthcoming Promise Neighborhoods planning grants, we conducted an interview with the Department of Education’s Jim Shelton. Shelton is the Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement (bio). He runs the office that runs Promise Neighborhoods.
DOE’s announcement Friday includes a lot of detail, and more will be forthcoming (both from DOE and from us in our forthcoming series of planning calls). So we focused instead on the bigger picture. How does Promise Neighborhoods fit into the Obama administration’s larger domestic policy and education policy plans? Where do we go from here? Read on to find out.
Building Neighborhoods: Thanks for joining us.
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Same, same.
Building Neighborhoods: Let me start with a little background about us. United Neighborhood Centers of America (UNCA) represents neighborhood-based organizations around the country. I also represent the Alliance for Children and Families. Members of both of those organizations will be applying for Promise Neighborhoods, and that explains our interest in the issue. I’m our vice president for public policy, I’ve actually spoken to you before and questioned you at the conference at the Harlem Children’s Zone last year.
Our blog has become a pretty significant go-to place for a substantial portion of the community that has a strong interest in Promise Neighborhoods. So that’s where this interview will end up.
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Fantastic.
Building Neighborhoods: Great, let’s get to it. Let me start with some news we heard just the other day about another program being run by your office, and specifically the foundation community’s reaction to it. As you know, several large foundations have pledged to provide very substantial private funding for the Investing in Innovation (i3) program.
As you also know, finding matches for applications in some low-income communities is difficult. This could be a problem not just for i3 applicants, but Promise Neighborhoods applicants, too. Do you have a sense that the foundation community will be doing something similar with Promise Neighborhoods?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: I don’t want to speak for the foundation community. I do know that the foundation community is paying attention to Promise Neighborhoods, especially during this planning phase. They’ve made themselves available, and are supporting some resources that will be available to applicants and those that implement Promise Neighborhoods ultimately. But I don’t want to speak specifically to their interest in terms of matches.
Building Neighborhoods: Okay. The next question is on the legislative plan going forward. My understanding from seeing the administration’s draft proposal for ESEA is that there is a plan to include a proposal for Promise Neighborhoods. But what I have seen from the briefing document is just a brief paragraph. Is there a more detailed proposal that is publicly available, and if not when do you think we’ll see that?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: There is not a more detailed version that’s available publicly. We’re still trying to make sure that we gather all of the lessons learned (even from this initial experiences around the planning grants) and factor them into our ultimate design of the program.
Building Neighborhoods: Okay. Do you have a sense of timing? Any thoughts or expectations about when we might see that?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: To be honest that depends on so many factors that I can’t actually predict when we’ll make our legislative specifications public.
Building Neighborhoods: Fair enough. Putting on my advocate hat, obviously we’ll have a strong interest in seeing that when it comes out. Let’s move on to the more general questions. These are more about the administration’s philosophy on education and domestic policy more generally. You can take these answers wherever you like.
Many people within the neighborhood-based community (and I’m speaking on behalf of my own members) are very excited about what the administration is doing here. We think it’s great that the administration is taking this place-based approach with programs such as Promise Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods and some of the others.
However, all of these seem to be pilot programs at the moment, especially Promise Neighborhoods — intended for just a few communities. The neighborhood-focused community wants to know to what extent the administration views Promise Neighborhoods as a model for something much bigger. For instance, within the education community, how do you expect to roll this out to the next level?
Secondly, considering that Promise Neighborhoods does tie to so many programs like Choice Neighborhoods, some DOJ programs, and some health-related programs, how do you envision this rolling out in terms of breaking down silos?
I guess the common theme here is: where do we go from here? What’s the next step above a pilot?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: I think the fact that you ask the question in this way shows that we actually have been thinking a lot about how we can leverage programs like Promise and Choice that begin to break down the silos between agencies. One of the things that is most compelling to me about the Promise Neighborhoods program is how many people’s basic reaction has been “it’s about time.”
Having done in this work in communities for very long, they seem to have a natural sense that we’ve missed a huge opportunity for leverage between the dollars we spend on social services, the programs we have in place to ensure really strong educational outcomes, and the way that we engage families and communities through a bunch of different public and nonprofit resources. They would argue that if we are capturing this opportunity, it’s on an ad-hoc basis as opposed to something systemic.
The administration overall believes that we actually have the opportunity to be much more systemic, and frankly in the context of a need to be really thoughtful about how we spend every dollar, looking for opportunities for leverage and integration only makes good sense.
Building Neighborhoods: Is a lot of that integration happening in the White House, specifically in the neighborhood policy working group?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Yes, to my knowledge. The White House Office of Urban Affairs is an example of an office that has tried to really work across the administration to develop a common point of view about what quality neighborhood revitalization means, how you actually define it, what are the core assets that a community needs in order to be viable and vibrant, and has asked all of the agencies to make sure that we’re using consistent language and consistent principles as we put together programs around that common vision.
Building Neighborhoods: Can you mention some of the other programs you’re coordinating with? I’ve seen references in some of the documents but I thought you could elaborate on that.
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Sure. So the Choice Neighborhoods and Sustainable Communities Programs at HUD, the Healthy Communities Program at HHS. Those are two classic examples of opportunities where we have to collaborate in terms of our place-based work. Additionally, the vice president, in the context of ARRA, really pushed us hard to make sure that we were thinking about the place-based opportunities with these unprecedented levels of funding that were coming to town in many places. It often got started there.
Building Neighborhoods: Obviously you’re breaking down silos that way at the national level and hopefully at the local level they’re doing the exact same thing. The place-based strategy is important. Breaking down silos is important.
But there are a few other themes that I have seen come out of the administration and I thought maybe you could talk about their importance, both within Promise Neighborhoods and the broader administration strategy. Obviously evidence and evaluation play a very strong role in many different things that the administration is doing. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: You clearly picked up on the theme that’s come from everyone from the president on down. We want to invest our dollars in what works. That means that we need to look for and seek out those things that work, but also make sure we’re using the most rigorous means available to figure out not only whether they work, but in what context, and in the best cases, what exactly makes them work. We’re trying to make sure that as we develop programs in general, and Promise Neighborhoods in particular, that we’re thoughtful about what we’re trying to learn from the program and are we constructing it in a way that allows us to walk away from hundreds of millions of dollars of federal investment with clearer answers to some of these core questions about whether it works, in what context, and how you can do it most effectively and efficiently.
Building Neighborhoods: That feeds into a separate but related question. I represent nonprofit organizations and we often work with private funders. One of the forbidden words that people don’t like to hear in the foundation world is “overhead.” But in many ways, overhead is the way that you pay for evaluation and data and computerized systems that enable breaking down some of these silos. Is the administration giving any thought to that and making sure there are sufficient resources for some of these things that are considered “overhead”?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: We believe we have. In particular I want to speak to the question you asked about the match. Remember that in these cases, matches can be in-kind or cash, so one of the great opportunities for partnership is around resources from organizations, colleges, universities or others that have the capacity to support the kind of data analysis, evaluation design, and research that we’re looking for in these competitions.
We’re trying to make sure that there are plenty of resources and space and that we’re being thoughtful about what we’re asking organizations to do as we set budgetary size and conditions on use of the funds. But we’re also recognizing that there are opportunities for that to be an essential part of the work that community-based organizations and others seek out partners to do.
Building Neighborhoods: Getting back to one of the first questions I asked you, we have neighborhood-based programs all over the country that are very encouraged to hear what the administration is doing on Promise and what this means more broadly. I think there are a number of efforts out there where people are committed to moving forward with something like this regardless of whether or not they happen to be one of the lucky few that lands a Promise Neighborhoods grant.
Are we dreaming, or is there going to be an opportunity to see these same lessons spill down through many different funding streams, not just the limited ones you mentioned, but more broadly with Community Development Block Grants, ESEA Title I funding, etc.? In other words, if some of these agencies choose to move forward regardless, will there eventually be a way for them to make a place based model work consistent with these broader principles that are obviously much bigger than Promise Neighborhoods?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: That’s our aspiration. One of the lessons learned that we hope to take away from this is the idea of not working in silos. As you pointed out, this is unfortunately something that is actually new. It’s something we don’t have a lot of skill and practice at, and we’re not necessarily sure where all of the barriers are. We hope that these programs, where we’re allowing for conceptual flexibility and being much more open to considerations of things like waivers, will also highlight where we need to make some policy or regulatory change to enable this kind of place-based work to happen at scale.
Building Neighborhoods: Hopefully we’ll be able to give you feedback on some of that as we work with some of our members.
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: And it’s not only our hope, but it’s actually our expectation. When you take a deeper look at the notice, one of the things you’ll see is that grantees are required to tell us what the barriers are to accomplish their work as part of their plan.
Building Neighborhoods: We have talked about a few administration themes that have played out in Promise Neighborhoods. We talked about the placed-strategy, silo-busting, the importance of evidence and evaluation. Are there any other important administration policy themes that people should be paying attention to and that may have broader implications for domestic policy generally?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Yes, I think there are a couple. One is that this administration is very clear about the importance of putting high quality educational options at the center of all these programs. If you don’t have good early learning and good K-12 schools and good after-school programs to provide academic and developmental support, the likelihood of the sustainability and ability of our neighborhood revitalization programs actually taking hold is lowered dramatically. That common theme of high quality schools and other programs at the center is a great theme that I’m really proud to be able to work with my colleagues in other agencies on.
Building Neighborhoods: What are some other themes?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: Another important theme is sustainability. Even in these demonstration programs, we need to fund things that demonstrate that they have the ability to succeed once the federal funding runs out. In addition to looking at the overall effectiveness, the administration is starting to look at the cost effectiveness of programs. I think that we’ve gotten to a place where we realize that even in the public sector cash matters. So we are empathizing and making sure that sustainability is part of the plans from the beginning.
Building Neighborhoods: That actually begs another question. Obviously the president made a huge point in the State of the Union earlier this year when he said the administration plans to freeze domestic spending going forward, and clearly the federal budget in the macro sense is something that a bipartisan commission is looking at now. It’s good to have stimulus spending in the short term, but that’s not the long-term plan.
This spills directly into the sustainability argument you just made. In the nonprofit community there is sometimes, how can I put this diplomatically, resistance to the notion in the foundation community that they need only put up start-up money and that we in the nonprofit community will find the rest – as if we are going to find dollars under a rock somewhere when the foundation money goes away.
To what extent will the federal government be playing a role in that sustainability in Promise Neighborhoods? Promise Neighborhoods is, by definition, about creating a pipeline to college for whole generations of kids. If a nonprofit wants to pursue this vision, to create a multi-generational program over a 20-year period, will the federal resources be there?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: I think it would be difficult for me to predict exactly what’s going to happen for folks over a 5 to 20 year period. What I can say is, if you look at the macro trend inside the Department of Education, we’ve expressed that we believe in producing outcomes and results. We’re going to create programs that reward people who can actually produce results and leave a lot of flexibility for them to determine the path they use to get there.
What that means is that programs like Full Service Community Schools, Promise Neighborhoods, and 21st Century Learning Community Centers are going to have a common set of principles. That’s about this continuum of supports and services, quality educational options, using data to determine whether progress is being made and ensure the ultimate outcomes of students who have real options in their lives.
If you look at our blueprint, it’s clear that that’s a long term commitment for us. That doesn’t speak to any individual program, but it does speak to the funds and resources that will be available for that kind of work. Back to what you said before, the smarter we get about how we actually give the flexibility to allow our existing funding to flow to more effective and integrated uses with other agencies, the more likely it will be that communities continue this work with or without our funding.
Building Neighborhoods: We’re nearing the end of the interview and we’ve covered a lot of ground here. Our audience is comprised of practitioners out in the field primarily, but also people here in Washington. With that in mind, what other messages do you think our readers should take away from this conversation?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: We’ve had a lot of people encouraging us to define programs in a specific way, with more emphasis on particular parts of the pipeline. We know that continual supports, data-driven results, and other core themes are important, but we’re going to give people of lot of flexibility to try different approaches and tell us why they think they’re going to work. They would then put together plans to execute those approaches. That flexibility is going to create a rich opportunity for us to learn from each other and truly innovate. I’m looking forward to seeing both solutions that have been well done before that will get a boost from this work, and people taking very different opportunities to put together programs that have never been thought of before.
Building Neighborhoods: Any last comments?
Assistant Deputy Secretary Shelton: The last thing to remember is that this is the planning round. The implementation grant is going to come out in 2011. It’s not going to advantage the folks that go through the planning round, but this is the opportunity for folks with more limited capacity to really move forward.
Building Neighborhoods: Thanks again.