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Lawmakers Aim to Extend 'i3' Program Beyond Obama

Could the Investing in Innovation grant program go away at the end of the Obama administration? Not if U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, have anything to say about it.

Begich has already introduced a bill that would authorize (Congress-speak for "officially create") the i3 program, which was initially developed through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the stimulus). And now Polis is planning to introduce a similar measure over on the House side.

Quick background: The Investing in Innovation grant program, which was financed at nearly $150 million in fiscal year 2013, helps scale up promising practices at the district level. The program serves as a testing ground of sorts for interesting ideas, but applicants' must back up their ideas with a rigorous research base. The i3 fund has also financed larger, more established approaches, including Teach for America.

So far, i3 doesn't seem to have drawn as much congressional heat as Race to the Top, which Republicans (and even some Democrats) have dissed and sought to chip away at.

Still, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee have tried to defund i3 (along with a whole host of the Obama administration's very favorite competitive grant programs). And an i3 authorization wasn't included in the bill to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives (with only Republican support) over the summer. Meanwhile, outside reports, including this one by Bellwether Education Consultants, have questioned whether the first round of i3 grants actually funded anything "innovative."

But the program's supporters are hoping the idea at the heart of the i3—trying to figure out what educational strategies work best—can attract some cross-aisle love.

"The program is very important because it put an emphasis on evidence," said Augustus Mays, the director of government relations at WestEd, a non-profit research and development service agency. West Ed has partnered with school districts on i3 projects dealing with adolescent literacy and early math intervention—the projects total nearly $38 million in federal funding. "We need to make sure that educational practices and programs are supported by what works and it needs to be shared and brought to scale. ... I think there is support on the Republican side around putting federal dollars towards educational programs that have shown success."

Both Polis and Begich want to put a new twist on the program: a bigger emphasis on rural schools. The Begich bill and the still-under-development Polis bill would include a 25 percent set-aside for rural schools. And the Polis measure would also put more federal focus on financing smaller grants to test out promising ideas with a more-limited evidence track record. His in-progress bill would call for steering at least 50 percent of the funds to so-called "development" and "validation" grants (the smaller categories, meant to test out ideas with potential or some evidence). More than a dozen organizations—including Teach Plus, the Knowledge Alliance, Democrats for Reform, and WestEd support the forthcoming bill.

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