Investing in Innovation Round Two Rural Priority

Last Updated: October 27, 2011

This article appeared in the October 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

Applications are in for $148.2 million in funding available in the second round of the Investing in Innovation (i3) competitive grant program and while it is too soon to reach any conclusions about how authentically rural proposals will do, it is clear that the new i3 guidelines are having an impact.

Of 488 applications submitted for the approximately 22 grants expected to be awarded, 99 claim to focus on the new “absolute priority” for proposed projects that hope to boost learning, graduation rates, and college enrollment rates in rural school districts.

“Rural” is defined as school districts eligible for either of the two categories of grants under the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP). These are generally either small or low-income rural districts.

The rural applicants must also address one of the other four “absolute priorities” for projects addressing development of teachers and principals; science, technology, engineering and math; standards and assessments; and turning around failing schools.

In the first round of the i3 program, there was no priority given rural proposals. Instead, a so-called “competitive preference” for programs claiming to serve rural schools allowed projects with broader objectives to gain bonus scoring points. The result was an avalanche of proposals that offered token support for rural schools on the margin of projects with clearly other priorities. Very few of the 19 successful proposals claiming the “rural preference” were based on innovations that are expressly applicable in rural settings, were clearly focused on rural schools, and would serve high-needs rural schools.

By making “rural” an absolute priority, the Department hopes to get more high-quality proposals genuinely focused on rural schools.

However, applicants whose proposed project claims the rural priority can serve non-rural as well as rural schools. So it is possible to still see proposals that add a little rural salt to their non-rural meat.

The Education Department has tried to prevent this by providing guidance that requires applicants to explain how their project will serve the “unique challenges” of high-need students attending rural schools and to explain the applicant’s “prior experience” working in rural schools. Further, readers who score these proposals will be instructed to consider the extent to which a proposal under the rural priority represents an “exceptional approach” to that priority.

If all those words have meaning, any sham rural projects should get filtered out.

Read more from the October 2011 Rural Policy Matters.