Ed Department lays out plan for distributing i3 grants

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US Sec. of Education Arne Duncan today laid out priorities and a game plan for distributing nearly $650 million in the so-called “i3 Fund” or Investing in Innovation Fund—basically a massive pot of seed money for district- and nonprofit-led school improvement programs that will be awarded on a competitive basis under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Comparing the competitive grants to a form of venture capitalism, Duncan said: “New ideas don’t always work, and I’m sure we will experience some failures.” But, he added, when programs succeed they will make “a dramatic difference” in the lives of students.

To win, educators will need to submit grant proposals early next year that meet the administration’s school reform priorities and convince a peer-review panel of their potential effectiveness. Bidding starts early next year and Duncan’s team will award grants in 2010 to either individual districts or districts that have partnered with nonprofits, universities or other school systems.

US Sec. of Education Arne Duncan today laid out priorities and a game plan for distributing nearly $650 million in the so-called “i3 Fund” or Investing in Innovation Fund—basically a massive pot of seed money for district- and nonprofit-led school improvement programs that will be awarded on a competitive basis under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Comparing the competitive grants to a form of venture capitalism, Duncan said: “New ideas don’t always work, and I’m sure we will experience some failures.” But, he added, when programs succeed they will make “a dramatic difference” in the lives of students.

To win, educators will need to submit grant proposals early next year that meet the administration’s school reform priorities and convince a peer-review panel of their potential effectiveness. Bidding starts early next year and Duncan’s team will award grants in 2010 to either individual districts or districts that have partnered with nonprofits, universities or other school systems.

Grants will be doled out over multiple years and Duncan said that milestones will be setup to ensure ineffective programs are killed early. “If someone isn’t hitting their marks, we’re prepared to stop funding them,” he said.

Among the i3 priorities, programs must address one or more of the following goals:

  • Supporting effective teachers and school leaders
  • Improving the use of data
  • Helping to establish high standards and assessments
  • Turning around low-performing schools

Ultimately, Duncan’s team wants to close achievement gaps, promote school readiness, increase graduation rates and cut into dropout rates. While not required, they also hope to fund programs that will serve rural school districts, improve early childhood learning, support college access and target students with disabilities and limited English skills.

All applicants will need to secure a 20 percent matching grant at the local level, either through private or public sector funding streams—a way to assure Duncan’s team of the long-term viability of any reform effort.

Applicants must also demonstrate a track record of improving student performance. But the administration has set different levels of proof for three types of grants.

Smaller “development” grants (less than $5 million) will go out to programs that are based on “reasonable research-based findings or theories.” The largest grants—or “scale-up grants” that will top out at $50 million—must demonstrate “strong” evidence of success and the ability to grow at a national or regional level. In between are the “validation grants”: grants that will be capped at $30 million and need to demonstrate “moderate” evidence of success and the ability to grow at the regional or state level.

The Department of Education is expecting some 3,000 plans and will be assembling a group of nearly 200 panelists to review applications.

In one of his more telling comments, Duncan said his administration will be looking for “depth rather than breadth” in the doling out of i3 funds. “The idea is not to spread it to thin,” he said.

The selection criteria are now open to public comments for 30 days and the Department of Education will be publishing a final set of guidelines in the Federal Register soon.

One issue that legislators are trying to work out is whether or not school districts should lose eligibility depending on their annual yearly progress status under No Child Left Behind. As the legislation currently stands, districts must have met “AYP” for two years. But Duncan hopes to ease those rules to allow more districts and nonprofits to submit bids.

“We just want to take to scale what works,” Duncan said.

Ultimately, the i3 Fund is just one part of nearly $5 billion in federal stimulus grants that will be awarded on a competitive basis next year. More than $4 billion—dubbed the “Race to the Top Fund”—will go directly to states that have, among other issues, demonstrated an aggressive approach to expanding charter schools, developing student data systems and distributing top teachers in struggling schools.