Education Funding

Rules Set for Fresh Round of ‘i3' Grants

$150 million in new federal cash includes focus on rural schools, lowers private-sector match
By Michele McNeil — June 03, 2011 3 min read
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The second round of the Investing in Innovation federal grant program will be a smaller, $150 million contest for districts and nonprofits that will require fewer private-sector matching dollars, ask applicants to focus on rural schools, and change how evidence of past success is used in the scoring process.

The U.S. Department of Education, which announced the guidelines last week, expects to give out as many as 22 awards in December in three tiers, ranging from $3 million to $25 million, with the largest awards going to proposals with the strongest research base, as in the first round. Applications will be due in August.

Last summer, the department awarded $650 million to 49 districts, schools, and their nonprofit partners to scale up promising practices, with the largest individual awards also going to the applicants with strong track records. Awards ranged from $50 million for the largest “scale up” winners, which included the big-name groups Teach For America and the Knowledge Is Power Program, to $5 million for the smallest, lesser-known “development” winners.

In a significant change, the department has added improving rural achievement as a focus of the “i3” program. Rural-school advocates have repeatedly accused the department of designing programs that shut out rural schools, which advocates argue have a tougher time in competitions because they often lack the resources of their big-city counterparts.

By deeming this an additional priority, the Education Department has signaled that it wants to step up interest in, and awards to, rural-centric programs. In fact, education officials said they might use their discretion to skip over high-scoring applications in other categories to make awards in the rural category.

“What we’re doing is we’re creating a space where rurals can compete against other rurals,” said James H. Shelton III, the department’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement. “We have the flexibility to allow highest-scoring rurals to be among the winners.”

The other four priority areas for the competition are teachers and principals; standards and assessments; low-performing schools; and science, technology, engineering, and math education, or STEM.

Loosening Reins

Two of the biggest areas of contention in the first round—requirements involving matching funds and evidence—also have changes this time.

An applicant’s track record of success has been a key component of the i3 program, which is billed as supporting and scaling up “evidence-based,” promising practices. But applicants will no longer be awarded points by the peer reviewers on that evidence; instead, it will be up to the department to determine if applicants satisfy the requirements.

Judges will still award points based on the significance of the effect a program has on student outcomes. Previously, the department and the competition’s outside judges evaluated applicants’ evidence in the first round, too, and found the process to be redundant and more complex than necessary. “We tried to simplify it ... and make one single review” of the evidence, Mr. Shelton said.

To be eligible to compete, applicants still will have to meet the same thresholds for evidence as in the first round. For the $25 million “scale up” awards, for example, that includes “strong” evidence, such as program evaluations that use random assignment of students.

Under the round-two grading scale, still based on 100 points, the need for the project will carry some of the strongest weight. It will account for 25 percent to 35 percent of an applicant’s grade, depending on the tier in which an applicant is competing. Each application also will be judged on three other factors: quality of project design, quality of the outside evaluation planned for the project if it wins, and quality of the management plan and personnel who will work with the grant.

As for the matching dollars, first-round applicants had to secure 20 percent from the private sector in order to win, which many feared would be too burdensome for small communities with fewer resources, and for everyone in general given the tight economy. (All first-round i3 winners did secure their matches.) This time, “scale-up” winners will have to secure a 5 percent match, “validation” winners a 10 percent match, and “development” winners a 15 percent match.

Much of the rest of the competition remains the same as the first round. For example, school districts and nonprofits that partner with districts or groups of schools all will be eligible to compete.

A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2011 edition of Education Week as Guidelines Set for Fresh Round of ‘i3' Competitive Grants

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