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Exploring the Rural Competitive Preference in the Investing in Innovation Program

Published:  January 25, 2011

In the Blueprint for Reform, the Obama administration set support for rural schools as one of its “cross-cutting priorities” for education reform. In that document, the administration pledged to include rural schools in new competitive grant programs, ensuring that they are not at a disadvantage compared with other schools, consortia, nonprofits, and institutions in these grant programs. Toward that end, the administration included a rural competitive preference in the recent Investing in Innovation (i3) grant program created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This meant that projects focusing on rural education would be awarded two bonus points on the competition’s 100-point scale. Nineteen of the 49 grant final recipients claimed that their grants were eligible for the Rural Competitive Preference. But it looks like the administration didn’t do enough to ensure that this competitive preference benefited the rural school districts it tried to target.

The Rural School and Community Trust this week released Taking Advantage: The Rural Competitive Preference in the Investing in Innovation Program, a policy paper analyzing whether the grant recipients who claimed the Rural Competitive Preference had adequately addressed the unique needs of rural school districts in their grant proposals. They found that very few of those applicants who claimed the Rural Competitive Preference had submitted proposals that focused on serving the needs of rural districts. Instead, most of these applicants appear to have included rural school districts as an afterthought in an effort to claim the two bonus points.

The Rural Competitive Preference in the i3 grant competition was one of several competitive preferences that applicants could claim to beef up their applications. While the other competitive preferences were each worth one bonus point, the Rural Competitive Preference was worth up to two. Applications that received two bonus points “would implement innovative practices, strategies, or programs that are designed to focus on the unique challenges of high-need students in schools within a rural LEA…”

The report concludes that only three of the 19 grant recipients who claimed the Rural Competitive Preference actually focused on rural challenges. It was both easy and attractive for applicants not focusing on rural school districts to include a token reference to these populations in order to claim the competitive priority. Additionally, application reviewers did not have a specific rubric by which to measure whether proposals met the requirements of the competitive priority, which may have led them to be overly willing to award these points.

Rural school districts also face particular challenges that made it nearly impossible for rural school districts to compete as lead applicants for i3 grants to begin with. They often lack the capacity to complete applications or hire and retain consultants to help them. The i3 competition’s 20 percent matching requirement was also outside the grasp of many rural school districts.

The Rural Competitive Preference was not an adequate way to give rural school districts a leg up over larger institutions and nonprofits in the i3 grant competition. More must be done if the Obama administration intends to stay true to its commitment to support rural school districts. In future competitive grant competitions, the administration must do more to account for the specific challenges facing rural school districts.

The Rural School and Community Trust suggests that future grant competitions set aside a separate pool of funding that is only available to applicants whose proposals address the needs of rural schools and districts. Within that pool, preference should be given to proposals where the lead applicant is a rural district or collaboration of rural districts rather than a non-profit or institution of higher education.

But setting aside money specifically for rural school districts does not address the quality of the applications these districts put forth. Rural school districts often lack the capacity for extensive grant writing campaigns, particularly those that require rigorous research and evaluation plans. Without the funds to do such research and evaluation, however, these districts will continue to face a dearth of quality research on innovations targeted at solving their specific challenges. Given this, the U.S. Department of Education should provide technical assistance to rural school districts before and during the grant application process to help applicants design quality research plans.

Given the Obama administration’s stated goal of addressing the needs of students in rural areas, future grant competitions must do more to make rural school districts competitive with larger districts, nonprofit organizations, and institutions of higher education. In the Blueprint for Reform, the administration encourages the U.S. Secretary of Education to set aside funds for technical assistance and research on innovations that will help rural school districts overcome capacity constraints. This is an admirable goal, and has yet to be accomplished by the i3 grant competition’s Rural Competitive Preference or otherwise. We’ll be interested to see if future competitive grant competitions include better methods of keeping rural school districts competitive.

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