The IES director recently posted a blog indicating that IES had to return approximately $44 million in unobligated funds of the $100 million total American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding IES received to help the nation's students recover from the learning losses of the pandemic. NCSER was hard hit by the rescission of these funds.
As transparent as we try to be, admittedly, the federal budgeting process is not always clear. Many of you have reached out with concerns about the potential impact of these ARP rescissions on your current grants and future funding opportunities. Please allow me to explain the current context of fiscal year 2023 funding and forecast for fiscal year 2024.
NCSER's Grant Funding: Where the Money Comes From and How It Is Spent
NCSER funds come from the Research in Special Education (RiSE) appropriation, which is one small part of the larger IES appropriations account. RiSE supports all of NCSER’s typical grant competitions. We also contribute money from this account to our share of other IES activities such as the grant peer review process and the PI meeting.
As those of you who have been funded by NSCER know, we provide grant funding on an annual basis. Even though we fund projects annually, once we make an award, we are committed to providing annual costs for a continuing project through the duration of the designated study period. Consequently, the amount of money available to support new research and training awards each year is contingent, in part, upon the number of current awards and their outyear costs. Any time NCSER funds a high number of new awards (and thereby commits to funding every award through the duration of the designated study period), there will be less money available for new awards the following year, unless the RiSE program appropriation receives an increase from Congress.
Deciding what new grant competitions in NCSER might look like in any given year requires that we balance many factors, including: (1) the amount of funding Congress is likely to appropriate to RiSE (note that we typically have to make decisions before we know for sure how much money we will have), (2) projected continuation costs for existing awards and commitments, (3) estimates of total funding available for new awards based on 1 and 2 above, and (4) a best guess prediction of the percent of applicants that will be successful, based on trends over time, in any single NCSER sponsored competition. If you have been around NCSER long enough, you know our funding is typically very tight, sometimes so tight we can’t offer any competitions (FY 2014) or need to significantly limit available competitions (FY 2017).
NCSER’s ARP-funded Research Projects
In FY 2022, once again, we found ourselves with insufficient funds to hold our typical special education research grant competitions. At the same time, IES received $100 million in ARP funding. With NCSER’s share of those funds, we chose, in part, to hold a new Research to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education grants program to fund projects that addressed the urgent challenges faced by districts and schools in supporting learners with or at risk for disabilities, their teachers, and their families in the aftermath of the pandemic. The competition was funded solely using ARP funds. To be clear, RiSE funds were never intended to be a source of funding for these projects.
By now you may be predicting where this blog is going…
NCSER was thrilled to be able to fund 9 research grants through this ARP-funded competition, all of which have the potential to improve outcomes significantly and rapidly for students with or at risk for disabilities. A little less than 2 months ago, NCSER was in the process of documenting annual progress and approving continuation funding for these grantees when the ARP funds were unexpectedly rescinded (returned to the U.S. Treasury as part of the debt ceiling deal). These projects were in various stages of progress, but each was just finishing the first year of the grant and it is fair to say that, overall, a significant amount of work (and grant costs) remained at the time of this rescission.
As I mentioned, NCSER has operated from the perspective that when we make a commitment to funding your grant, we prioritize your continuation costs first before funding new awards or initiatives. In other words, if we are ever in a budget crunch, we will meet our existing commitments first before using money on new activities. Although the ARP funding source was eliminated, our commitment to those FY 2022 ARP-funded grants remained. We chose to use money from our RiSE account to pay for current and future continuation costs for these grants. I hope everyone can understand that this difficult decision honors our standard practice of prioritizing existing commitments.
NCSER’s FY 2023 Research Competition
After accounting for the cost of the continuations that would have otherwise been supported using ARP funds, NCSER’s ability to fund new awards in the FY 2023 grant competition was limited. Further exasperating our new budget shortfall was the much higher than expected (based on past application and funding trends) number of FY 2023 applications that were rated outstanding or excellent. This is a great testament to the field and the work that you all do! Unfortunately, this success came at the same time as this unexpected, very large budget rescission. Something had to give and sadly, what gave was our ability to fund many worthy new grants. It was not a decision made lightly or without thought for those grants left unfunded. I know that many of you are disappointed in this outcome.
It takes a tremendous amount of effort to produce a grant application and we recognize your continued efforts to work with NCSER staff throughout the pre-award process. It is heartbreaking to find out a grant you submitted won’t be funded, despite having such a strong score. NCSER staff were heartbroken with you.
Outlook for FY 2024
What does this all mean for NCSER moving forward? Despite the setback this year, based on available information we have now, NCSER plans to offer research competitions in FY 2024. We are committed to offering new funding opportunities whenever possible to continue the tremendous strides we have made in improving the depth, breadth, and quality of special education research in this country.
NCSER and NCER will be notifying the field very soon regarding FY 2024 competitions, so stay tuned. If you have not done so already, please sign up for our Newsflash to stay current on IES happenings, including the release of new funding opportunities.
Although the challenges we experienced this year certainly were disappointing, I want to end on what I see as the silver lining that emerged from of all of this. Namely, since NCSER’s first research competitions in 2006, the capacity in the field to conduct high-quality research and carry out excellent research training has grown tremendously. We should not forget how far we have come, and how bright NCSER’s future is. Our funding has not (yet!) kept pace with that growth, but that is a subject for another blog…
Please reach out to me at Jacquelyn.Buckley@ed.gov with questions or comments. I'm always happy to hear from you!