GAO: Promise Neighborhoods Needs Evaluation Plan, Should Inventory Related Programs and Funding

Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama administration initiative loosely modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone and other place-based initiatives, lacks an appropriate plan for measuring its results, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In its report, GAO also said the program should do a better job helping the majority of local initiatives that have not received implementation funding.

The program, launched in 2010, has provided 1-year planning grants worth up to $500,000 to 46 local initiatives across the country and 5-year implementation grants worth up to $6 million per year to a dozen initiatives, most of which had received planning grants.

The last grants were awarded in 2012. Since then, the program has made no new grants and has devoted most of its annual funding to the existing 12 implementation grantees. (The program has been level-funded for the past three years, receiving $57-60 million annually.)

GAO noted that most planning grantees did not receive implementation funds and most of those grantees were experiencing challenges. Some are currently running scaled-down versions of their original plans.

GAO suggested that the U.S. Department of Education, which runs the program, could help by assembling an inventory of related federal programs and funding streams. As examples, GAO found several federal programs that were commonly being Incorporated by the 12 implementation grantees, including Americorps, Head Start, and School Improvement Grants.

Interesting, other programs that are formally part of the administration’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, such as Choice Neighborhoods, were not as commonly used. According to the report, “education officials attributed the small number of grantees that use HUD’s Choice program to the fact that few grantees have distressed public housing within their footprint that is eligible for this funding.”

In its response to the report, the Department of Education said it was addressing this issue. “Department staff will work with the Promise Neighborhoods program’s technical assistance providers to create a mechanism to distribute, on a regular basis, a comprehensive list of external funding opportunities, programs, and resources.”

GAO also criticized the program for lacking a clear evaluation plan. The report noted that Promise Neighborhoods “grants are focused on improving student outcomes on 15 performance indicators, chosen by Education.” Toward that end, the Urban Institute has released guidance on collecting and reporting results and “grantees are investing significant time and resources to collect data.”

Nevertheless, the Department of Education “lacks a clear plan for using it.” Locally, GAO noted that 6 of 11 grantees it spoke with were facing difficulty getting consent to access and use student records. Moreover, according to the report:

The Urban Institute has analyzed the data on the indicators for the first implementation year (the baseline), but Education has not decided whether it will make the first year’s data public because it was not collected in a consistent manner and not all grantees were able to collect all of the necessary data.

The program has also not received sufficient funding for a national evaluation, according to the Department of Education.

Despite these challenges, the report also highlighted several positive aspects of the program, including improving local collaboration, establishing common outcomes, leveraging resources, and tracking performance. GAO noted that “a majority of grantees … reported that the grant enabled new efforts or enhanced existing efforts to secure funding from non-profits or federal, state and local government.”

The report also noted several performance-related advances, including:

  • A majority of the grantees surveyed stated that they had conducted or were planning to conduct an evaluation of their efforts at the local level.
  • All six of the implementation grantees that GAO interviewed stated that they are either in the process of building or deploying longitudinal data systems.
  • A majority of the implementation grantees surveyed reported that they currently work or plan to work with their partners to share access to data systems and establish performance measures.


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