i3 Finalists Give Insight Into Cost Per Student of Innovative Reforms

Jennifer Cohen
November 17, 2011

What is the ideal cost per student for an innovative education project?   At this point, no one can really say for sure; we don’t have enough evidence on successful reforms. Hopefully, that will soon change.

Today, the Department of Education announced the 23 highest-rated applicants for the second round of the Investing in Innovation fund (i3) grant competition. i3 is helping to grow local, mostly untested innovative reform efforts and collecting data on their effectiveness. As a result, the i3 grantees should make a big contribution to our knowledge about what education reforms work, how they can be replicated elsewhere, and which ones get the most bang for the buck.

This round of the i3 program, which was originally created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, will provide $150 million in competitive grants to school districts and partnerships between non-profits and districts to support innovative reform efforts. These finalists must find matching grant support of between 5 and 15 percent before they are officially awarded the federal funds. Much like the first round of i3 grants awarded in 2010, the finalists for this round vary widely in scope, focus, and location. Only one finalist applied for a scale-up grant, which are grants intended to support projects that already have rigorous evidence of success. Five finalists are validation applications, meaning they have moderate evidence of success. Finally, 17 finalists applied for development grants to support promising but untested efforts.

Each applicant had to apply under an “absolute priority” defined in the i3 guidance. Surprisingly, the 23 finalists are reasonably equally distributed among the five priority groups. See the table below for the breakdown.


This was not the case for the “competitive preference priority,” a secondary set of priorities that applicants could identify under for additional points. Specifically, a greater concentration of applicants applied under the “college access” and “students with disabilities and limited English proficiency” categories than the other four. See table below for the complete breakdown.


The finalists are located in 14 different states representing all regions of the country. However, 4 are located in California and 4 are located in New York, an unsurprising development given the large populations in both states. Kentucky, Maryland, and Texas each house two finalists. Unfortunately, there is not data available at this time on whether applicants are located in rural, urban, or suburban areas except that we know that five applicants applied under the “rural” priority.

The most interesting distinction among the finalists, however, is the so called “bang for your buck” for each project. That is, how much do these reforms cost per student? We calculated those very figures using data from the Department of Education on the estimated number of students each finalist will serve and the amount of funds they each requested for their grant.

Unsurprisingly, cost per student varies widely among the finalists with a low of $69 per student for the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative’s Career and College Readiness Transformations program and a high of $4,641 for KnowledgeWorks’ Creating a Corridor of Innovation program. Del Norte Unified School District’s Responding Effective to Assessments with Curriculum and Teaching (REACT) program comes in at the median at $771 per student. In total, nine finalists have costs per student of $1,000 or more while another nine have costs per student of below $300. Click here to download a spreadsheet containing these data.

This variation is somewhat concerning at both ends of the spectrum – while it seems unlikely that $69 per student will make much of a difference for reform efforts, $4,641 per student seems like a potentially ineffective use of federal funds. While it does not appear that the Department of Education took cost per student into account as it scored each i3 applicant, it seems impossible to ignore this important factor in awarding grants.

As we said earlier, though, no one really knows what the ideal cost per student for an innovative project is.  Hopefully, the evaluations and data collected from the i3 grantees will help us better understand what successful reforms cost per student. With this information, the federal government will be better able to determine what costs are reasonable and realistic and local schools and districts will be able to budget appropriately as they attempt to undergo similar efforts.

Assuming the 23 finalists for the second round of i3 grants are able to secure matching funding, they will join the previous 49 winners in one of the Department of Education’s first efforts to rigorously support and evaluate local innovative programs. Check back with Ed Money Watch as we follow their progress.

This article was originally published by the New America Foundation.



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