Special Report
School & District Management

Hurdles Loom for Launch of Innovation Fund

By Michele McNeil — August 11, 2009 3 min read
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As the U.S. Department of Education prepares to kick-start a $650 million innovation-grant competition, federal officials are grappling with several challenges even before they unveil the criteria on which schools and districts will be judged.

First, the department is working to widen eligibility for the innovation grants, because the criteria written into federal law would eliminate dozens of school districts from the running. The department is also bracing for up to 3,000 applications from school districts—all of which need to be processed quickly by the department and judged by independent experts.

Within the next few weeks, the department expects to unveil the criteria for school districts to compete for the “Invest in What Works and Innovation” grants, created as part of the larger American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus package passed by Congress in February. Though the $650 million innovation fund is markedly smaller than the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund for grants for states, it’s nonetheless a coveted pot of money that will pit districts against one another in a contest to see which can be most creative with a relatively unrestricted slice of federal stimulus money.

The fact that the competitions for the Race to the Top and Invest in What Works and Innovation grants are all kicking off within weeks of each other is no accident, Mr. Duncan said in an interview. “We want states and districts to have a thoughtful plan for reform,” he said on July 28 as he was traveling in Orlando, Fla. as part of his “Listening and Learning” tour. “And we want to invest only in those districts that have a comprehensive plan for innovation.”

Eligibility Shift Proposed

Yet first, the eligibility criteria in the stimulus law should be loosened, according to James H. Shelton, the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, who was traveling with Mr. Duncan in Florida.

Currently, the stimulus law requires school districts to have made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for two years in a row. If that requirement sticks, Mr. Shelton said, that would mean of the nation’s 200 largest school districts, only 26 would qualify to even compete.

The department wants to tweak the law so that districts would be eligible if they show “demonstrated success in significantly increasing student academic achievement for all groups of students,” according to the proposed change.The proposed change was included in the fiscal 2010 budget legislation approved by the full House of Representatives as part of the lengthy appropriations process.

Who Gets to Judge?

Another big challenge with the innovation grants—and Race to the Top grants, for that matter—is finding people to judge them. Mr. Duncan says he will find “disinterested superstars” from outside the department to serve as peer reviewers who will offer recommendations. The department will have the final say on awards to states and districts.

In some ways, Mr. Shelton faces an especially daunting task in finding experts to judge the innovation-fund applications, because conflicts get harder to avoid when applications from thousands of school districts are pouring in.

Though all of the nation’s roughly 15,000 school districts are eligible, the department expects between 2,000 and 3,000 to apply.

Mr. Shelton said he doesn’t have a target number of districts for the awards. But his mantra is that less in more.

“You want these grants to be meaningful,” he said in an interview, arguing that hundreds of small grants won’t promote the kind of innovation the department wants to see.

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Hurdles Loom for Launch of Innovation Fund

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