By now we’ve all seen the list of the big Investing in Innovation (i3) winners. Nearly 1,700 contestants entered the squared circle, and only 49 emerged as “winners,” with the survivors now left to prove that their research-based innovation is the best damned innovation in the entire education land.
(Bear with Eduflack, I’m trying to build up the hype here. I’m amazed by how little excitement or enthusiasm has come from the announcement of $650 million in i3 grants earlier this week. This should be a much bigger deal than it is.)
When I first saw the list on Wednesday afternoon (thank you Michele McNeil and Politics K-12 for giving us the list a day before we all expected it), I was taken by a few things. The first was the absence of the Chicago TAP program from the list. For the past year, I have been all but certain that TAP would win one of the $50M biggies. Perhaps the recent study on TAP’s effectiveness was more damaging that most expected.
The second was how few school districts actually won i3 grants. Throughout the process, most talked about how these were LEA based. We all knew that some non-profits and institutions of higher education would win. In fact, we expected that some of the larger grants would go to reform-minded non-profits (as it did). Yes, I am surprised so many IHEs put in winning applications. But I am more surprised how the list seems to say that innovation is coming from outside influences, and not from the entities (the districts) entrusted with educating our children.
Yesterday, I (and I’m sure much of the free world) received an email from the good folks over at the NewSchools Venture Fund, as it congratulated nine “NewSchools supported ventures” that won i3 grants. And it got me really thinking. This week’s 49 winners all need to find a 20 percent match to actually receive their oversized checks from the US Department of Education. I assume that these nine NewSchools groups (including Teach for America and KIPP) will be able to find the outside funding necessary. But what happens to those orgs that may not be able to secure a few million in outside funding in short order, in this economy?
When applications were solicited, it was made clear that such outside funding did not have to be lined up to win. Securing that third-party funding could be done after selection, meaning you only needed to hustle for the dollars if you actually needed the money to close the deal. So we now have 49 innovative education programs scurrying to secure $130 million in matching funds to qualify. Once the Gates Foundation puts money down on the horses it is going to back, and other large foundations do the same, who is going to pick up the slack for the many remaining groups, particularly those in the “validation” category? Will we see dollars coming from local foundations? In-kind contributions of staff and benefits? Creative book keeping to hit the magic mark?
It all raises a bigger question. How many of the 49 selected applications will fail to meet all of the requirements (meaning the 20 percent private funding match) by September 8? Will today’s winners be denied their checks tomorrow? Personally, I’m willing to bet at least five of the winners will have to seek waivers and extend their private-sector fundraising efforts.
Without question, those writing the checks want to put their money on winners, particularly in the education space. And these 49 are as sure a bet as there is. But 49 groups scurrying for $130 million in 34 days, including five weekends (one of them a holiday) is asking an awful lot, even for innovators like this lot.