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Flexibility Eyed for Any Future ‘i3' Contest

By Michele McNeil — January 24, 2011 4 min read
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Although the prospect of a new Investing in Innovation competition is up in the air, the U.S. Department of Education wants to build more flexibility into the next generation of its innovation contests, particularly when it comes to how much money applicants must secure from the private sector.

Of all the requirements for last year’s “i3” competition, the 20 percent private-sector match drew some of the biggest complaints and presented some of the tallest hurdles for applicants.

In proposed regulations that would apply to any future competition, the department signaled that it would aim to offer more leeway in that requirement. The mandate applied to all i3 hopefuls, from those applying for the smallest, $5 million “development” awards to those applying for the largest, $50 million “scale up” grants.

“One of the lessons learned is that the match may need to differ at different levels of the grants in order to maximize the impact of philanthropic resources,” said James H. Shelton, the department’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement. In some cases, the department may want to require a greater private-sector match, and in other cases, fewer private dollars may be warranted, he said.

Last summer, 49 school districts and nonprofit organizations won the $650 million i3 competition, funded by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and designed to scale up promising practices. Three tiers of awards were given out for the most innovative pitches, with the biggest prizes going to those that also showed the strongest track record of success.

The Obama administration is hoping to persuade Congress to turn the one-shot deal into a long-term initiative.

On the 'i3' Horizon

The U.S. Department of Education has proposed new rules for future Investing in Innovation grants. The changes would:

• Give the department flexibility to change the requirement that all applicants secure a 20 percent private-sector match to win.

• Let the department change the criteria by which applicants are judged to “enable the i3 program to focus on the most critical needs for education in any given year.”

• Clarify that the limit set during the original competition on how many grants an applicant could win would not necessarily apply in future contests.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

In addition to letting the department change the matching requirement, the proposed rules would allow it to change the criteria by which applicants are judged. Under last year’s competition, peer reviewers rated applicants in seven areas: need for and quality of the project; evidence; applicant’s record of success; quality of the evaluation process the applicant intends to use to assess the project; ability to scale up the initiative; sustainability; and quality of management plan.

“We have concluded that greater flexibility is needed for choosing selection criteria ... in order to enable the i3 program to focus on the most critical needs for education in a given year,” the proposed rules state.

The proposed rules also would clarify the limit on how many awards and how much money any one winner could reap. The cap in the original competition was two awards totaling $55 million. That cap would not necessarily apply in future competitions, to “better support the growth and ‘scaling’ of practices,” the proposed regulations say.

That language could open the door for big winners—such as Teach For America and the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which each won a $50 million scale-up grant—to win again.

Details to Come

The proposed rules, for which public comments are due by Feb. 9, don’t go so far as to say what the new matching requirements would be, or what criteria would be used to judge applicants. Those specifics would be decided in a notice announcing any new competition, which would not have to go through the lengthy federal rulemaking process. In essence, the proposed rules provide a template for future i3 or i3-like competitions—and acknowledge that there were limitations in last year’s contest.

Chief among those limitations, at least to some observers, was the 20 percent private-sector match. When it was first being debated, many argued it would make foundations gatekeepers of who won and lost, and would discourage smaller, less well-connected entities from applying.

“It was a huge barrier for many folks,” said Robert Mahaffey, a spokesman for the Rural School and Community Trust, based in Arlington, Va., which worked to try to get rural districts involved in the competition. “It was a significant part of the decisionmaking process as to whether districts would invest the time to apply.”

In fact, several winners—including the Success for All Foundation, one of the winners of the $50 million grants—scrambled just days before the deadline to come up with the matching funds. (“‘i3' Recipients Dash to Secure Private Match,” Sept. 15, 2010.)

The Education Department’s push to gear up for a future i3 could be moot if Congress doesn’t decide to pay for the contest in the future.

The administration asked for $500 million in its fiscal 2011 budget request, but instead, lawmakers ended up flat-funding K-12 spending at 2010 levels until March 4. And with the Republican surge in November that came amid promises to rein in federal spending, the fate of i3 is even more uncertain.

The department does have a discretionary Fund for Improvement of Education, which usually finances congressional earmarks, which have fallen out of favor. But the department says the fund doesn’t have any money in it at the moment, and regardless, Mr. Shelton said it would not be his intention to access that money for an i3-like contest.

One benefit of publishing the proposed regulations now is that the department would be able to jump-start a future competition should funding come in. When the i3 competition debuted, by the time the final rules became official, school districts and nonprofits had just two months to get their applications together.

“The most important lesson coming out of this is that timing matters a lot,” Mr. Shelton said. “We need to give applicants as much time [as needed] to do their best work.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as Department Eyes Flexibility in Any Future ‘i3'

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