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Bill Would Give Rural Schools Preference In i3 Competition

Rural school advocates have criticized the U.S. Department of Education for failing to award Investing in Innovation grants to "authentically rural" communities, and a new bill aims to address some of the areas they cited as problems.

Forty-nine school districts and nonprofits won federal stimulus money in the i3 competition that was designed to expand promising practices in school districts. A report from the Rural School and Community Trust found that only four of those proposals had innovations that were adapted for a rural context, and only three were "authentically rural."

The i3 grants had a low-threshold of effort for applicants to qualify as serving rural schools, but the new bill sets a higher standard, said Marty Strange, policy director for the rural nonprofit advocacy group.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich
, D-Alaska, introduced the Investing in Innovation for Education Act a few weeks ago, and co-sponsors are Senators Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.; and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. The Rural School and Community Trust worked with Begich's office to craft the legislation.

"It makes a very earnest effort to address the issues we raised," Strange said.

The bill would make the i3 program a permanent Education Department program, and it would include a special focus on rural areas. It would require that 25 percent of the money awarded go to rural areas, and that means:
• An applicant would have to be a local educational agency in a distant or remote town or rural area;
• It would have to be an educational service agency or nonprofit organization with demonstrated expertise in serving students from rural areas;
• A majority of the schools to be served by the project with these funds would have to be designated as fringe, distant, or remote rural schools.

"It can be difficult to compete for grants when you live in a small, rural area—like many in Alaska—and don't have the capacity to support the grant process through significant local funds," Begich said in a statement. "The key changes to the current program I`ve proposed level the playing field and give students, no matter where they live, the chance to benefit from innovative ideas and programs."

The bill would allow the U.S. Secretary of Education to set aside up to 10 percent of the i3 money for national program services, and that would include outreach and technical assistance preparation services to small rural districts.

Many rural districts, especially high-poverty ones, have scant resources—the superintendent in a district may be its grant writer. The set-aside would help districts that want to collaborate and achieve some needed scale, Strange said.

The bill also would ensure those reviewing and scoring grant applications have competence in rural education.

"Those are all important steps forward," Strange said.

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