Granting Education

It’s grant writing season in the education world. The possibility of receiving millions in federal stimulus dollars has motivated more than 1,600 local school districts and non-profit education organizations nationwide to develop and write proposals for Investing in Innovation, or “i3,” projects for consideration by the United States Department of Education. Some 300 will be awarded funds for work to last up to five years, all designed to improve teaching and learning for high-need students through rigorous study of promising approaches to challenges like implementing high  standards, recruiting and retaining effective teachers, increasing graduation rates, and serving schools in rural communities.

As with all federal grant proposals, applications must adhere to a strict set of parameters in content and format, with detailed implementation plans and clearly outlined budgets. As a next step for the i3 grants, developers of most proposals that are favorably reviewed will also have to secure a 20 percent match in funds or in-kind services from the private sector–another hurdle to clear before a project can get underway.

The process can be daunting: Of more than 2,400 letters of intent to apply to the i3 program, it appears that almost a third dropped out before actually submitting proposals. On one hand, stringent requirements serve as an effective filter for separating well-constructed from less substantial ideas in any area of endeavor, particularly when public money is involved. On the other hand, how many potentially excellent ideas never make it to the proposal stage as a result? And of those that do get submitted, how many will get tossed out because they miss the technical mark in one way or another despite being potentially worthy innovations? It seems that education could benefit from the approach that fuels private business in our free enterprise system: unfettered venture capital to underwrite promising innovation–the opportunity to try out good ideas with enough support over a long enough period of time to ensure some measure of success.

While i3’s 20 percent match requirement will present a challenge to many potential grantees, the good news is that through it, the federal government is essentially asking the private sector to step into the arena of public education–to begin putting some private venture capital into the sector responsible for producing the workforce and consumers of the future.  Some private foundations and corporations have already begun this process on their own, but i3 might well be an important boost for public-private partnerships that will have potential benefits all around.

What’s your view of this approach to funding innovations in education? Has your school district or non-profit submitted or partnered on an i3 proposal? What challenges and opportunities have developed for you as a result, and how do you hope to respond to and build on them in the near future, whether or not you become an i3 grantee?

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