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Innovation Grants—Grab 'em While You Can

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By guest blogger Erik Robelen:

As school districts, charter operators, and other nonprofits anxiously await further details from the Education Department on the $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund, Congress appears disinclined to pony up much, if any, extra money down the road to keep the program going.

President Obama had asked for an additional $100 million in fiscal 2010 to extend the program, first created under the federal economic-stimulus law earlier this year. The House responded by offering up all of $3 million in the budget bill for the Education Department it passed in late July. And that was pretty generous compared with the Senate Appropriations Committee, which did not provide one dime of new money for the program in the budget bill it passed days later.

Department officials provided some early clues to the direction of what they’re now calling the “i3” program during a symposium last month. But a variety of people I’ve spoken with say there are still far more questions than answers about the program. Detailed guidance is expected in coming weeks.

As part of the department’s fiscal 2010 budget request, it said the $100 million in new money would support “(1) the evaluation of promising new initiatives and approaches to determine if they are suitable for scaling up; (2) expanding the implementation of effective practices across districts and states; (3) supporting the development of 'model districts' that use multiple evidence-based strategies to increase student achievement; and (4) leveraging partnerships with the private sector and the philanthropic community to develop, scale up, document, and disseminate best practices for improving student achievement.”

Meanwhile, Congress seems more amenable to making legislative changes the administration has sought for the i3 program. Both the House budget bill for the Education Department and the version passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee include that language.

(To view the language directly, go here. Click on the third version of H.R. 3293. Scroll down to the "General Provisions" link, the last one, under "Title III, Department of Education." Then scroll down to Section 307.)

I'm still waiting for comments from the Education Department, but one change appears to offer more wiggle room regarding which districts or schools would be eligible to apply for the grants. Essentially, it provides some extra flexibility on the academic-performance requirements for those wishing to apply. My colleague Michele McNeil has previously reported that the department is seeking this change to avoid disqualifying many districts.

There are a couple of other changes, too, including one that says the organization that acts as the “fiscal agent” for a grant under the program “may make subgrants to one or more of the other entities in the partnership.”

Education policy veteran Christopher T. Cross, a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, tells me this language is pretty important, and he suggests it’s a good idea.

“It extends the capability of the department so that they’re not having to manage everything that is done with the money, so that they can, for example, make bets on people who they would have confidence in [who] could then make successful bets,” Mr. Cross.

What do you think of the amending language? Let us know, by posting your comments below.

Also, as Michele previously reported, the Education Department is apparently concerned that the annual appropriations process—which can drag on for months—may not be the best vehicle for quickly amending the stimulus law. It’s apparently hoping to attach the amendment to some other legislation. No word yet on how that’s going.

1 Comment

That the Education Deparment is considering allowing fiscal agents to make subgrants is a terrific idea. It minimizes the number of groups that will have to report to the federal government and it allows those on the ground to make decisions about how the money can be used most effectively. Picking those fiscal agents, then, will be terribly important and let's hope that those who are selected have a track record of success in terms of delivering on the grants that they have received in the past.

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