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Next Round Of 'i3' Grants May Benefit Rural Schools

Rural schools may have a better shot at winning federal Investing in Innovation grants under guidelines announced Friday for the new round of grants, which total $150 million.

The U.S. Department of Education has five priority areas for the latest i3 competition, and each applicant must address at least one of those. In a significant change, the department added improving rural schools' achievement and graduation rates to that list.

Rural school advocates have been critical of the i3 program, saying it puts their schools at a disadvantage because they don't have the same resources to compete as larger districts. The first round of grants gave applicants bonus points for innovations focused on rural students, but James H. Shelton III, the department's assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, said on Friday that officials wanted to create another mechanism to ensure rural schools are competing on a level playing field.

"That is a way for us to ensure rural can compete against rural," he said.

My EdWeek colleague Michele McNeil reported that officials may use their discretion to skip over high-scoring applications in other categories to make awards in the rural category.

Rural school advocates have faulted the department for failing to award i3 grants to "authentically rural" communities, saying only three of proposals funded in the first-round fit that criterion. They also have said those scoring the applications didn't have a good understanding of rural communities and how the applications would translate into implementation.

Shelton said the department hopes to recruit more reviewers with rural backgrounds and expertise, and he's particularly interested in folks who have a range of skills and understand how programs can be scaled to a rural context.

The department doesn't have a quota for how many rural proposals it hopes to fund, but Shelton said he hopes to receive a high-quality pool of applicants, including those from rural communities.

Earlier this month, we reported that U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, introduced a bill that would make the i3 program permanent and include a special focus on rural areas.

The i3 program received nearly 1,700 applicants and awarded 49 grants in its first round. The department will offer pre-application workshops in coming weeks along with webinars on key i3 topics. Applications will be due in August, and awards will be made by December.

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