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More Innovation Fund Details

Schools and the Stimulus
Jim Shelton, the Education Department's assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, who will be spearheading the process for doling out $650 million in Investing in Innovation grants to be made available under the economic-stimulus package, gave state and local officials a clearer picture of what he's looking for on a conference call today.

The official word on the Innovation grants isn't available yet. But Shelton, in a call with other top Education Department officials, said the department would be looking at student graduation, student matriculation, and student achievement in doling out the grants.

And he said the department also would be weighing the sustainability of each project, the likelihood of the project being continued after the grant has dissipated, and the scalability of the project. It appears that he wants models with staying power that can be replicated elsewhere.

He said the grants would follow a similar time line to the Race to the Top Fund, with two closing dates: one in the winter and one in the spring.That sounded to me like there will be two rounds of funding.

Shelton said that "applicants must also include private partnerships that will produce matching funds." That sounded to me like districts should have the ability to find some matching funds, but it was tough to tell for sure from Shelton's wording. It's possible that the department may just want districts to specify whether they'll be able to get matching funds or not.

Still, Shelton's statement raised the eyebrows of one rural official, who pointed out on the call that it's going to be a lot tougher for rural schools to get local matching funds. Shelton said that the department is aware of the issue and is trying to figure out a way to help rural districts deal with it.

Joanne Weiss, who is overseeing the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund, which is meant to reward states that are making progress on school improvement, teacher distribution and in other areas, stressed that states should get buy-in from districts on their plan. She suggested that states enter into a "memorandum of understanding" with local districts.

One official asked whether states could target specific high-need districts in their applications. Weiss said that was a great point and suggested the questioner put it in writing so the department could respond to it through official channels.

One listener from California asked whether districts would be eligible for innovation money even if the state isn't eligible or doesn't get a grant. (I guess this official had heard something about that fire wall issue involving the use of data.) The answer was an emphatic, "Yes."

Another official asked if states could work on their applications in groups, even though they have to apply individually. The department folks said that would be fine.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan let Shelton and Weiss do most of the talking. But he kicked off the call with a warning about the H1N1 flu virus. He said that some schools may need to close if the virus kicks back up in the fall. The U.S. Department will be issuing guidance on the flu this Friday, he said.

And Duncan stressed that schools should expand online learning and correspondence course options so that kids don't miss out on learning, even if a school is closed because of the flu.

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