School & District Management

Coveted ‘i3' Cash Prompts Application Gold Rush

By Michele McNeil — July 13, 2010 6 min read
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Demand is far outpacing resources in one hot segment of the education innovation market, as districts, schools, and nonprofit organizations pitch reform proposals worth $12.8 billion for competitive grants to be awarded under the federal Investing in Innovation Fund, or “i3”—nearly 20 times what the U.S. Department of Education has available.

The $650 million competition financed by the economic-stimulus package drew 1,698 applicants by the May 12 application deadline, creating a wish list that ranges from a $22,282 proposal to improve students’ writing in Connecticut’s Preston district to a $50 million plan to expand the Teach For America corps.

Through a new, user-friendly web-site unveiled last month, the Education Department has now offered the public a glimpse into who’s applied for these i3 grants, what innovative proposals they’re pitching, and how much money they want.

The data reveal that a little more than half the applicants are nonprofits that have partnered with districts and schools, vs. school districts that are going after these grants as lead applicants on their own. Those are the only two types of applicants eligible to apply.

Investing in Innovation Applications

With $650 million in funds available, 1,698 districts, schools, and nonprofits applied for the Investing in Innovation competitive grant program through the U.S. Department of Education. Combined, these applicants requested $12.8 billion. Here’s a breakdown of the applicants by state.

BRIC ARCHIVE

NOTE: Figures are rounded.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; Education Week

Nearly 40 percent of the applicants—whether they’re based in rural areas or not—say they are going to address the needs of rural schools or districts if they win. Judges can award up to 2 bonus points on the 100-point grading scale if they think a proposal meets that criteria.

And about 12 percent of applicants, or 200, say they won’t be able to secure 20 percent in matching funds from the private sector—a stipulation for winning—so they’ve asked for a waiver from the department. These findings are according to an Education Week analysis of the online data, which the Education Department compiled from the applications submitted by the May 12 deadline.

The $650 million i3 competition is a relatively small piece of some $100 billion in education aid funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress last year. Unlike the more high-profile Race to the Top competition for states, there’s only one round of competition for i3, and there are fewer guidelines on how proposals should be shaped.

The i3 grants will be awarded by Sept. 30 to the most innovative proposals that focus on improving teacher effectiveness, low-performing schools, standards and assessments, and data systems. The largest grants of up to $50 million, called “scale-up,” will be awarded to those proposals backed by strong evidence of success. The two other tiers, $30 million “validation” and $5 million “development” grants, require lower levels of evidence.

'i3' Fund By the Numbers

Applicants: 1,698

Money requested: $12.8 billion

Money available: $652 million

Nonprofit applicants: 920

Applications with a rural school element: 652

Applicants requesting a matching-funds waiver: 12%

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; Education Week

For the Education Department, sifting through so many proposals in search of truly innovative ones may be the toughest hurdle, given how the rules of the program work, said Tom Vander Ark, a partner in the education advocacy and strategy group VA/R Partners, in Seattle, who has been closely tracking the i3 grant program.

“It’s a problem that most of this money is going to school districts, and school districts are not very good at innovating; they’re set up to operate schools,” Mr. Vander Ark said.

Still, he said, there is one bucket of i3 proposals that may churn out some interesting ideas: the 592 applicants that are focusing on high standards and assessments—the category that drew the most interest.

“That ended up being a general category, and that’s where we’re seeing the widest range of proposals,” Mr. Vander Ark said.

Sweeping Proposals

The Education Department’s newly released data also reveal, for the first time, which 19 organizations are going after the largest, $50 million scale-up grants.

This list includes sweeping proposals from organizations that are often mentioned by Education Secretary Arne Duncan as success stories, such as the KIPP Foundation and Teach For America.

The San Francisco-based Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, is asking for $50 million to scale up the organization’s leadership model by training 1,000 future principals and enhancing its evaluation system for school leaders—leading to 50 percent annual growth in new KIPP school openings.

New York City-based TFA wants $50 million to grow its teacher corps by 80 percent by 2014, accounting for 20 percent of new hires in high-poverty schools across 35 states and the District of Columbia.

Scale-Up Proposals

Nineteen districts and nonprofits applied for the largest Investing in Innovation grants, the “scale-up” grants worth up to $50 million each.

BRIC ARCHIVE

NOTE: Figures are rounded.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; Education Week

Signaling how high the stakes are, neither organization would comment on their proposals, citing the competitive, peer-reviewed nature of the grant process, according to their respective spokesmen.

For Clifton Park, N.Y.-based Project Lead the Way, which provides science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, programs to 350,000 students in all 50 states, applying in the scale-up category was a strategic move. Since its STEM programs have been the subject of several research studies done in different settings, using different methodologies, leaders thought it had a good chance in the toughest scale-up category, where the high evidence bar would likely mean few competitors.

The group is applying for $50 million to quadruple the number of students it reaches, to 1.4 million, within five years. And to get there, Project Lead the Way took an unusual approach in selecting which districts it would work with. Rather than handpicking them from the start as most other applicants did, the organization will hold a competition (much like i3 itself), to determine which districts and schools will get to share the winnings and create new or improved STEM programs.

The benefit to the Education Department, says Chief Executive Officer and President John Lock, is that local districts will bring even more private-sector money to the table, further leveraging federal i3 winnings.

“How much money that brings into STEM education is huge,” he said. “For Project Lead the Way to break out, this would be a huge step for us.”

But he knows the Education Department can’t fund all the i3 hopefuls.

“They’re not going to be able to award all of the worthy applications, and that’s going to be difficult,” Mr. Lock said, adding that the philanthropic market also won’t likely be able to come up with the cash to subsidize every worthy innovation project. “There’s some danger in creating a sector of haves and have-nots. I’m hopeful that’s not the case.”

Review Begins

Now that the applications are in, the Education Department is ushering them through the peer-review process, in which hundreds of judges will read and score the applications based on seven criteria: need for and quality of the project; evidence; applicant’s track record of success; quality of proposed evaluation of a winning project; ability to scale up; sustainability; and quality of the management plan and personnel.

Then, the Education Department, with help from its legal team and its research arm at the Institute of Education Sciences,

will screen the highest-rated applicants to make sure they meet all the eligibility requirements—including that they have the appropriate amount and type of evidence for the tier in which they applied. Applicants that are high scorers but are then deemed ineligible by the department will be notified around the end of July and will be eliminated from competition, department spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya said.

According to the competition’s rules, up to 205 awards will be made, with an estimated maximum of five in the scale-up category, and the remaining 200 divided among the remaining two categories.

Many applicants tried to improve their odds by pitching several proposals. The 83,000-student Baltimore district, for example, made four pitches for i3 money, all in the development category, worth a total of $17.6 million. Their proposals would address parental involvement, school nutrition, a career-ladder program for teachers, and a data-based school quality review program.

Others are partnering in several applications to boost their odds. The 56,500-student Boston district, for example, is the lead applicant in a $6 million “development” grant proposal to use extended learning time to turn around low-performing schools. But, according to the Education Department’s data, the district is also a partner in at least 21 other applications, such as a $4.9 million plan by the Natick, Mass.-based nonprofit Arts|Learning to use music to help struggling students in grades K-5.

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week as Coveted ‘i3' Aid Prompts Flood Of Applications

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