Taking Advantage of the Rural Preference in the Investing in Innovation Grant Competition

Last Updated: November 30, 2010

This article appeared in the November 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

The $650 million Investing in Innovation (i3) competitive grant program drew 1,698 applications. Ultimately, just 49 were selected to receive grants. Of the 49, 19 claimed that they would serve at least one rural school district, making them eligible for two extra scoring points.

The i3 competition guidelines allowed applicants to claim this “rural competitive preference” for projects “designed to focus on the unique challenges of high-need students in schools within a rural [school district].”

When we learned that a project designed to operate entirely within the City of New York had made the rural claim — and had been awarded points, we wondered why.

So we took a close look at the publicly available documents about the 19 projects to assess whether the rural competitive preference had the effect of attracting authentically rural proposals. Specifically, we wanted to know if these projects were based on innovations that are expressly applicable in rural settings, clearly focused on rural schools, or serve the kinds of high-needs rural schools specified in the guidelines.

What we found was disappointing.

There clearly are some good rural projects among the nineteen. But most of the projects are of urban origin and design. They are centered in urban institutions or organizations and serve primarily urban schools with a sprinkling of rural participation. There is little thought about rural context and just enough rural effort to justify the rural competitive preference claim.

In many cases, the applicant said it would work in rural schools but did not name or locate them. Giving our best effort to identify specific rural school districts identified as participants in these 19 applications, we were able to confidently list fewer than 150 schools. Three of the projects accounted for 112 (77%) of the 150 rural schools. The remaining projects had no more than eight rural districts and as few as one. Some projects pledge to include rural districts to be named later.

It was also revealing that among the 19 “rural preference” applicants, only six appear to have any sustained experience working in rural schools and districts. Seven have limited or very limited experience. Another six applicants appear to have no rural experience whatever, and the rural effort in their projects is to be minimal. Their sudden interest in rural schools seems opportunistic, motivated by a desire to enhance otherwise non-rural proposals by gaining rural competitive preference points.

Our full report will be released soon.

Read more from the November 2010 Rural Policy Matters.