i3 Awards Don't Reach Many High-Needs Rural Districts

Last Updated: October 26, 2010

This article appeared in the October 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

The U.S. Education Department’s Investing in Innovation (i3) competitive grant program is supposed to improve K–12 achievement and close achievement gaps, decrease dropout rates, increase high school graduation rates, and improve teacher and school leader effectiveness. All laudable objectives, and critical for high poverty rural schools that serve communities that face some of the most difficult challenges.

Forty-nine of 1,698 applicants won awards totaling close to $650 million, so we wondered how many of those winners plan to serve Rural 900 school districts. The Rural 900 are the 900 rural and small town school districts with the highest percentages of disadvantaged students (roughly the top ten percent).

It is not a very encouraging inquiry. The R900 districts are located in 37 states. In 19 of those 37 states, there was no i3 project that identified any school district of any kind that it planned to serve (some project applications did not identify school districts to be served, or did so only in documents not made available to the public).

Those 19 states serve 38% of all students in R900 districts, and the average poverty rate among them is 39%, greater than nearly every inner city urban district.

There are i3 projects in another 12 states, but none of those projects are in any rural districts. These 12 states serve 39% of all students in R900 districts and their average poverty rate is 37%, higher than all but the Bronx and Detroit among major inner city school districts. (Note: poverty rates in small urban districts, like Flint, Michigan; Rochester, New York; and Laredo, Texas are actually higher than the rate in major inner city districts).

Four more R900 states had an i3 project that did plan to serve rural areas, but no R900 districts. Eight percent of all R900 students live in those four states; they have a combined poverty rate of 34%, about the rate of Philadelphia.

In all, only six i3 winners named R900 districts they intended to include. The total number of R900 districts they named? Thirteen.

And in four of these six projects, the R900 participation was a shadow of the larger effort planned for urban districts by these i3 programs.

There were four projects that may serve more R900 districts, but they did not disclose exactly which districts they would serve. In two cases, these players-to-be-named-later may well include more R900 districts. One project, Teach for America, lists 20 or so districts that we believe to be Rural 900 districts, but they are buried in the midst of 148 districts that include the largest school systems in the nation. The project most likely to actually target R900 districts is a project sponsored by the University of Missouri that does not name the schools but says all 60 to be served will meet the criteria for the federal Rural Education Assistance Program. Many will almost certainly be R900 districts.

Finally, one project will serve small, isolated schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education on reservations in the Southwest and the Northern Plains. These would be R900 districts if they were public schools entitled to receive Title I funds, the data base we use to identify R900 districts.

But for most of these projects, the rural effort is either non-existent or merely an appendage designed to qualify the applicant for the two extra scoring points they could get if they included some rural component. The handful that focus primarily on rural schools — and reach into high poverty rural communities — stand out as exceptions that prove the rule: This program was not made for them.

Read more from the October 2010 Rural Policy Matters.