No sooner had Betsy DeVos been sworn in than the Department of Education dispatched letters to 77 universities rejecting their Upward Bound grant applications for piddling errors such as single-spacing instead of double-spacing.
But Ms. DeVos fought the bureaucracy and won, announcing Wednesday that the funding requests would be reconsidered after an internal battle over the tighter formatting rules enacted under the Obama administration.
“Going forward, I have directed all Department staff to allow flexibility on formatting and other technical elements on all grant applications,” Ms. DeVos said in a statement. “Bureaucratic red tape should never get in the way of helping students.”
It didn’t hurt that Congress was in her corner. The 2017 omnibus appropriations bill added $50 million for TRIO programs, including Upward Bound, aimed at boosting achievement among low-income students.
“We were able to propose a solution that gave Secretary DeVos a way out,” said Rep. Warren Davidson, Ohio Republican. “But frankly, even there, it was hard for her. You had the legal team advising the status quo. It really showed that the secretary is going to run the department, not the legal team.”
At least one Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, didn’t see it that way. He blamed Ms. DeVos for nixing the applications, even though the department said they were “deemed ineligible under technical formatting rules issued by the previous administration.”
“Secretary DeVos‘ decision to ignore Montanans has been troubling, but I am pleased that she will reconsider this important grant application,” said Mr. Tester. “Now it is critical that she does not make this mess worse by rejecting the grant.”
He added in a Wednesday press release that the program “shouldn’t end because of government red tape and an Education Secretary who has a lot to learn about public education.”
Mr. Davidson, who helped lead a bipartisan coalition of 32 House members calling for the requests to be reconsidered, said that wasn’t the case.
“These are things that were going on under the previous administration, and because those were the rules and because that was the basis for the rejection, the legal team was saying, ‘The safe thing to do here is to reject them and you can change the policy going forward, but you can’t reconsider that,’” Mr. Davidson said.
In her testimony Wednesday before the House Appropriations education subcommittee, Ms. DeVos said “the process was open and closed prior to my coming into the job.”
She was sworn in Feb. 7 after being confirmed by one vote in the Senate. Upward Bound applications were due in November, said Eddie Chambers, director of the Wittenberg University program in Springfield, Ohio.
“Let me just say that this issue apparently has been going on through four different secretaries, unaddressed,” said Ms. DeVos. “The moment I found out about it, I issued a departmentwide policy indicating that we are not going to reject applications for any competitive bid process based on formatting. This is a bureaucratic requirement that we should be rid of now, and we are.”
She alluded to the internal struggle, saying, “if you had any idea how much time it has [chewed] up internally for us, you would be amazed.”
Among those thrilled by the department’s decision to reconsider the proposals was Mr. Chambers.
“I was ecstatic. I knew it was definitely a win not only for our institution but for all 77 programs that had been rejected as a result of font issues or double-spacing issues,” Mr. Chambers said.
After submitting a 65-page application in November, Mr. Chambers said he was in “total shock” when he received a letter from the Education Department saying the request for $504,000 had been denied.
Why? “It was approximately two pages out of about 65 pages in our grant application that were supposedly not double-spaced,” he said. “They said that the problem was that our budget and some of the line items in our budget were spaced at 1 1/2 rather than double-spaced.”
Without the grant, Mr. Chambers said it was unclear whether Wittenberg would be able to offer the program, which was slated to serve 109 disadvantaged high school students. More than 3,000 students have participated in the university’s program over the years, he said.
“I’ve been working in the Upward Bound program for almost 40 years. I’ve never seen anything quite like what we experienced,” he said. “It was just baffling. I mean, to be rejected over a minor issue such as spacing — it just blew my mind.”
Mr. Davidson agreed that the funding for schools like Wittenberg, which lies in his district, was crucial.
“Wittenberg’s not Notre Dame or Harvard with a massive endowment sitting there. They couldn’t make up a half-million dollars easily. And so this really would have affected those students they’ve been able to help in the past,” Mr. Davidson said.
Mr. Chambers, who said he wasn’t asked to resubmit the application, said he now hopes the next letter from the Department of Education will be better than the last one.
“Hopefully within the next few days we’ll be getting more good news once our grant is read and scored,” he said. “We hope we’ll be among those again on the slate to be funded.”
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