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Arne Duncan Makes Push to Continue i3 Program in NCLB Rewrite

Washington

The Obama administration's signature Investing in Innovation program would go the way of dinosaurs and covered wagons, if legislation to update the No Child Left Behind Act that's been proposed by Republicans in the House and Senate makes it over the finish line.

But U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took to the road Monday in his push to save i3, which helps scale up promising, evidence-based programs at the district level. His approach is to show what the funding—totaling more than $1.2 billion since 2009—has helped bring to fruition.

His Exhibit A: an i3-funded innovation at the long-troubled Francis L. Cardozo Education Campus in the nation's capital, a high school that recently saw a multi-million dollar renovation, but has a challenging population. One third of its students are English-language learners, and another third are students in special education.

Money from the i3 program helped the school develop a new science, technology, engineering, and mathematics program that seems to have really engaged a handful of 11nth graders.Those students dressed up in suits Monday morning and "pitched" Duncan on a new product—an iPhone app that would help solve Cardozo's truancy problem by ensuring that parents and others are notified when students check in to class. (The students won a statewide award for their app, from Verizon.)

The district's i3 grant is part of a partnership with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The project, called "Diplomas Now," received $30 million in federal i3 funds and is now in its third year of implementation at the school. 

"We want to replicate these kinds of stories around the nation," Duncan told reporters at Cardozo. "The federal government innovates in lots of places," he added, including defense and health. "We think we should absolutely be innovating in the education space."

But that's not part of the Senate draft legislation to renew the NCLB law or the House bill, which is slated to be considered in committee this week, he added. "There's no innovation in there," Duncan said.

And Kaya Henderson, the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, said the Cardozo program owes a huge debt to the federal seed money. She also said another federal grant, the Teacher Incentive Fund, has helped the district develop its teacher-evaluation system, which takes student performance and growth into account. (Unlike i3, TIF would be continued under a Senate proposal to update NCLB.) 

Investing in Innovation, which was initially created through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus, received $120 million from Congress in fiscal year 2015, less than the $141 million it got the previous year. 

It isn't the only Obama K-12 competitive-grant program that's on the rocks. Inside-the-Beltway folks saw trouble for the administration's favorite competitive-grant initiatives even before the GOP took over both houses of Congress. And the Obama administration didn't even try to propose a continuation of its high-profile Race to the Top program in its recent budget request for fiscal year 2016 (which largely finances the 2016-17 school year).

In addition, neither the House nor Senate proposals would continue the School Improvement Grant program, which was first created under NCLB in 2002, but which the Obama administration significantly revamped and expanded. SIG has had mixed results when it comes to student achievement. And no matter what happens with NCLB overhaul, the Obama administration's vision for the program is essentially kaput anyway, thanks to new regulations—required by Congress—that would give states more leeway in figuring out their turnaround plans for low-performing schools. 

So if the administration wants to have one of its competitive-grant programs survive its time in office, i3 and Promise Neighborhoods—which helps finance programs that seek to pair academics with wraparound services, such as arts education—are probably the horses to bet on. And i3 has a deep support in the advocacy and research communities, in part because of its emphasis on evidence. (Want, umm ... evidence of the program's popularity? Check out this letter, signed by more than 100 advocacy groups urging Congress to keep i3 in a revision of NCLB, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.) 

Of course, Republicans would counter that if states and districts want to continue with programs like i3, they can do so on their own dime, since Republican NCLB rewrites would give states far more flexibility over their federal funds. (And, in fact, several states, including Georgia, have started their own, home-grown innovation funds inspired by i3).

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