RT Report: Few i3 "Rural" Grants Generating Rural Innovation

Last Updated: January 24, 2011

This article appeared in the January 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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The federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program did little to surface innovative solutions to the unique challenges of high-needs rural schools, despite the program’s stated emphasis on rural schools. That’s one of several important messages in a report released January 25th by the Rural Trust. The report also offers suggestions for how a federal grant program aimed at rural innovation could be structured.

“Taking Advantage: The Rural Competitive Preference in the Investing in Innovation Program,” authored by Rural Trust Policy Director Marty Strange, examines whether or not the i3 program attracted authentically rural proposals that focus on the challenges of high-need students in rural schools.

(You can read the Executive Summary here and the full report, including all charts and analysis, here. The citizen action version, with background information and data summaries, is available here.)

The i3 program included a “rural competitive preference,” meaning that in addition to the 100 possible base points for all proposals, applicants could receive one or two bonus scoring points for projects “designed to focus on the unique challenges of high-need students in schools within a rural [school district].” Rural districts are defined in i3 guidelines as those eligible to participate in one of the two federal Rural Education Achievement Programs (REAP).

“Taking Advantage” reports that 49 proposals were funded through i3, and 19 of these proposals received at least one rural bonus point. Yet most of these “rural preference” applicants have little experience in rural schools, and, in most cases, the proposed innovations were designed for or originated in urban schools. Further, most rural preference projects will serve primarily urban schools, with only a small percentage of the total effort going to rural schools or students.

According to the report, only three projects that won rural bonus points were based on “innovations that are expressly applicable in rural settings, focused on rural schools, and serving high-needs rural students.”

Rural Trust staff examined the documents of the 19 rural preference proposals that posted on the U.S. Department of Education i3 website. The report analyzes the extent and nature of their rural program in these proposals, but makes no attempt to challenge i3 results or assess the overall quality of projects.

i3: Investing in Innovation

What is it? A federal competitive grant program intended to stimulate innovation in education, authorized through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (stimulus).

How much was granted? $650 million.

Who was eligible to apply? School districts and consortia of districts and non-profit organization/s working with school districts.

What were grant requirements? Research evidence to support the proposed innovation; a 20% match; capacity to “scale up” the innovation to reach additional students.

Grant Categories: Applicants apply in one of three categories as follows:

  • Scale-up: Grants up to $50 million; strong research evidence; scalable to national, regional or state level (1 million students, target).
  • Validation: Grants up to $30 million; moderate research evidence; scalable to regional or state level (500,000 students).
  • Development: Grants up to $5 million; research research-based findings or theories that have been previously attempted and tested; expected to further develop and scale (100,000 students).
  • Scoring: Grants were scored on a 100-point scale with 1 additional “competitive preference” point for early education, college access, students with disabilities and Limited English Proficiency, and 2 points for rural districts that are eligible for one of the two federal REAP program.

Key Findings

Rural preference grants skewed to urban projects

Almost 40% of applicants claimed the rural preference points, but in many cases, the “rural” effort was minimal. The Board of Education of the City of New York received a rural preference point simply for asserting that its innovation could work in a rural district.

Few rural innovations, limited rural reach

“Taking Advantage” reports that results of this analysis were disappointing.

Only three rural preference projects clearly originated in rural schools. Few proposals address how urban innovations will be adapted to rural settings, and just six applicants have sustained experience working in rural settings.

With two exceptions, the proposals are vague about how they will serve rural schools and whether schools are REAP-eligible or high-needs. Fewer than 150 rural districts are identified in the i3 rural preference grants.

Although project budgets are not posted on the Department website, available documents suggest that rural schools will not receive significant amounts of i3 funding and will have little control over project spending.

Finally, most reviewers seemed to lack awareness of rural challenges or the rural-appropriateness of proposed innovations.

Better Options Targeted to Rural Realities

"Taking Advantage" calls the rural competitive preference the “wrong remedy” for the serious challenges facing rural schools, and it asserts that competition is unlikely to unearth rural innovations. High-needs rural districts do not have the grant writers or foundation connections to compete with large urban districts and national non-profits, in part because they have seriously inadequate levels of funding.

For these and other reasons, rural districts might qualify for i3’s rural preference points, but not for enough of the basic 100 points to win funding. On the other hand, large institutional applicants could compete for the 100 basic points and also score the two bonus “rural” points with minimal rural effort.

The report offers several suggestions for ways to overcome these rural challenges with a carefully structured federal grant program focused on innovation rather than competition.

A set-aside pool of funding available only to projects that address the unique challenges of high-needs rural schools would guarantee funding for innovative rural work.

Priority for proposals where the lead applicant is a high-needs rural districts or a consortium would enhance collaboration and innovation at the local level.

A program of “prior support” could provide additional lead time and technical assistance to rural districts to develop innovative work and collaborative structures rooted in their unique experiences.

And, a well-designed, innovation-driven research program could strengthen the research capacity of rural schools and stimulate external researchers to create research methodologies and generate information useful to high-needs rural schools.

Making Rural Matter

Rural schools share many common challenges with urban schools, yet they exist in a fundamentally different context with unique challenges. The i3 program, with a few exceptions, did not address these unique challenges. “‘Making rural matter,’ in the quest for innovation,” writes Strange, “will require greater attention to the distinct character of rural communities and greater reliance on rural people for their own ideas” and for ideas about how to adapt innovations generated in other places.

Read the Executive Summary, full report, and the citizen action edition

Read more from the January 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

Related Categories: Rural Policy Matters

Related Tags: Federal Policy, Investing in Innovation