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i3 News: Much Ado About Nothing... And Yet Still Cause for Concern

I can't decide whether yesterday's U.S. Department of Education press release on the new "partnership" between twelve foundations and ED's i3 effort is just a painful example of vapid triumphalism or whether it actually sends a worrisome signal. I'm mostly inclined to think it's much ado about nothing. After all, as Ed Week's intrepid Michele McNeil pointed out yesterday, "The new, collaborative effort is not a pooled fund of grants; each foundation will retain control over its contribution...nor is the initiative announced by the U.S. Department of Education April 29 a commitment of additional funding...The $506 million represents the total amount of money they had planned to spend this year on what they consider education innovation."

In other words, it's not new money and the various foundations are retaining full control over the funds they are giving. Instead, the only real developments are that the foundations are signaling their fealty to i3 and announcing their intention to create and use an online registry that will make it easier for applicants to reach out to foundations and for the foundations to identify potential grantees. The online registry is good stuff, if somewhat small beer.

More interesting, and potentially troubling, is the signal being sent by the Department's breathless announcement. The press release asserted, "12 national foundations have committed $500 million in 2010 funds to leverage the U.S. Department of Education's $650 million Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund aimed at similarly aligned investments, making more than $1 billion available." Our earnest Secretary of Education--apparently not learning from the whole RTT "buy-in" debacle about how signals sent by a cabinet secretary with $5 billion in discretionary funds can readily be exaggerated or misinterpreted-- eagerly described the initiative as a "historic, coordinated effort."

At least a couple of concerns here. One, simply out of sensible professional caution, analysts, academics, and policy thinkers tend to step gingerly when addressing the efforts of major foundations. Many of these individuals are funded by those foundations and, even if they're not, they're often seeking to collaborate with, study, or address potential grantees. None of these individuals want to be perceived as a thorn in the side of potential funders. While this situation is probably unavoidable, of much graver concern is when that cloak of protective silence gets extended to the federal government. And I fear that situation all too likely if advocates and researchers regard the ED agenda as an extension of the agenda of the major funders. The fear is that criticizing ED or the i3 criteria may be seen by grant applicants, grantees, and others in education as reason enough to steer clear of the offending party. This will only shrink the number of individuals willing to challenge, scrutinize, or criticize federal actions.

Two, the ED strategy may be wrong. It may be ill-conceived, simplistic, or poorly executed. One of the great strengths of the messy, decentralized, and partisan nature of American governance is its ability to surface competing solutions and ideas. In seeking to produce more reform coherence, it would be a tragedy if we undercut the Tocquevillian genius of the American system. While there's much to like in the broad contours of ED's strategy, there's the real chance that the criteria the federal bureaucracy is using to gauge i3 applicants may be biased in favor of gold-plated programs. This could produce results that are unduly narrow, hostile to for-profit providers, tilted to certain LEAs, or problematic in other ways. It's likely that this design, while it will yield some benefits, will also hinder the efforts of some promising ventures if the i3 winners wind up sucking all the oxygen out of the room. The signaling gear matters a lot. It's going to be real tempting for foundation staff to look to the i3 winners as easy sells to justify to their board. Again: even symbolic gestures can matter a lot in this space.

And, for what it's worth, the release did make me flash back to the Annenberg Challenge from the 1990s. In that case, too, the federal government sent out excited signals (with a Rose Garden ceremony featuring President Clinton). The challenge also entailed about $1.1 billion, between Ambassador Walter Annenberg's gift and the matching contributions it leveraged. This time, instead of the haphazardness of that grassroots-oriented initiative, we have come 180 degrees, and the goal is now for federal and philanthropic efforts to concentrate their dollars on a set of ventures identified in accord with federal guidelines. So, we've now raced from "toss the money out there" to "let's set federal criteria for innovators and encourage private foundations to employ them too." Swell.

Like I said, there's not much meat to the announcement, so this is probably much ado about nothing. But the Department's excited release and Duncan's bold words risk sending a signal that the nation's major philanthropists are becoming supplemental funding arms of the U.S. government. For those folks who think this is a good thing because they like the direction of ED under Obama and Duncan, they should just remember how fast that worm can turn.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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