i3’s Fate Tied to NCLB Reauthorization

With legislation reauthorizing the principal federal K-12 education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), now moving in the House and expected to move soon in the Senate, what will be the fate of the Obama administration’s signature evidence-based education initiative, the Investing in Innovation (i3) program?

The Republican-controlled House is expected to pass its version of the bill next week and it contains no mention of the program. House Republicans appear to view it as just one of many federal programs that should be consolidated or eliminated. At best, i3 is seen as a potential bargaining chip in any future negotiations with the administration.

The program’s status is less clear in the Senate, which Republicans also control but where some Democratic support is required to reach the 60 votes necessary to overcome a potential filibuster. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) have been working together for several week to hammer out a bipartisan bill in that chamber. Alexander hopes to move it as soon as next month.

Despite their bipartisan efforts, Alexander appears skeptical of dedicated federal funding for innovation. He left i3 out of a discussion draft that he released before entering into negotiations with Murray. According to a report in Education Week:

“My own view is that the government ought to enable and encourage, not mandate, innovation,” said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the committee. “It can do this well” by letting states decide for themselves how to use federal funds.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member on the panel, rejected the notion of eliminating dedicated funding arguing that the federal government can and should help invest in particular areas that simply wouldn’t be possible at the state or local level.

“In many places, states and districts are already feeling tight budget constraints,” Murray emphasized. “Without dedicated funding for innovations in STEM, literacy, arts, physical education, or other priorities, there’s no guarantee that states would invest in solutions that can help close achievement and opportunity gaps.”

Murray is a strong supporter of evidence in federal programs. Late last year she introduced legislation, along with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) in the House, that would create a commission to promote the use of evidence in federal programs more broadly. The two are expected to reintroduce that legislation again this year.

In additional to Murray, Alexander will also need the support of several other Democrats, including Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), who is an i3 supporter. He is expected to introduce legislation authorizing i3 along with Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) in the coming weeks. (Update: here.) Similar legislation has already been introduced in the House, but Democrats there have little leverage.

The i3 program has also drawn continued support from the administration. Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke in favor of the initiative at a local i3-funded program at the Francis L. Cardozo Education Campus in Washington, D.C. earlier this month. According to Education Week:

“We want to replicate these kinds of stories around the nation,” Duncan told reporters at Cardozo. “The federal government innovates in lots of places,” he added, including defense and health. “We think we should absolutely be innovating in the education space.”

The program also has the support of some in the education advocacy community. Over 100 education organizations have signed a letter circulated by the Knowledge Alliance in support of i3. According to Michele McLaughlin, President of the Alliance, “We need i3. To launch and sustain innovation at any reasonable scale, there needs to be a federal role.”

Other organizations, such as the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, are pushing to expand the use of research and evidence beyond i3. Writing about the proposal, Martin West, an associate professor of education at Harvard, said: “A competitive grant program that includes these design elements need not be called i3 … [This proposal would] allow the Department of Education to reserve up to one percent of funding of all ESEA programs (except Title I) to award grants for innovation and research, with grant amounts based on the tiered evidence model used in i3.”

No Child Left Behind (also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA) was last authorized in 2002 but — due primarily to the bipartisan negotiations between Alexander and Murray — education advocates think there is a good chance a bill will be enacted this year. Alexander has indicated that he would like to get a final bill to the president by the summer, before presidential campaign politics make enacting a bill more difficult.

If the bill stalls, i3 seems likely to continue for at least the remaining two years of President Obama’s term in office. To date, despite lacking authorizing legislation, it has been funded in annual appropriations bills since it was first created as part of a large stimulus package in 2009. It received $120 million in funding for the current year.

The next two years are likely to be critical for the program in any event. Final evaluations for the initial cohorts of i3 grants are expected to begin rolling out later this year.


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