Colorado hopes to Race to the Top for grants

By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Gov. Bill Ritter and a majority of state lawmakers made a last-ditch effort this week to heighten Colorado’s chances of netting a lucrative multi-million federal education grant.

The U.S. Department of Education will dish out $4.35 billion in grants this year to top education reform states as part of the Race to the Top program. On Tuesday, Colorado and 40 other states submitted their applications for the competitive grants. Seeking a $377 million, Colorado is one of several states to jump at the extra funding by initiating reform efforts and creating or rewriting laws.

“People have really bought into this,” said Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who has championed education reform as her marquee issue. “A lot of other states, they rammed it though and now they’re going to have to spend a lot of time really making sure people are committed to implementing it. I think we’re in a better position personally.”

Colorado’s goal of receiving a $377 million grant may represent a dream more than reality. The U.S. Department of Education’s non-binding grant recommendations project the state would likely receive between $60 and $175 million, if selected.

Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association and a former teacher in the Cherry Creek schools, said the size of the gift depends on a variety of variables.

“It depends on how many states are granted money because there’s only so much money in the grant. Number two, it depends on the size of states that receive grants, with the largest states likely to get larger grants. Number three, it depends on the strength of our case,” Ingle said.

If Colorado isn’t selected, state officials can re-apply for the same grant in the second phase awarded in September.

During a Tuesday news conference at Denver’s East High School, Ritter cemented a late crunch by the state lawmakers to strengthen Colorado’s Race to the Top bid. On the same day Colorado turned in its bid application, he announced an executive order creating a council charged with over-hauling teacher and principal evaluations. The previous Friday, the governor also signed fast-tracked legislation, Senate Bill 36, which allows teacher-training institutions to gauge success of their programs by tracking trainees up to three years after they’ve left.

“Both Senate Bill 36 and the executive order strengthen our Race to the Top proposal, and more importantly, will improve educator training programs and evaluation systems,” Ritter said.

Race to the Top specifically outlines teacher performance tracking programs in its primary selection criteria.

State leaders downplayed their late push for the grant by clarifying that recent reforms are a part of the state’s master education plan, with or without federal gifts.

“Regardless of whether we receive the grant, we will continue down the road and the Race to the Top proposal gives us a blueprint for the next part of the journey,” Ritter said.

The Council for Educator Effectiveness, mandated by the governor’s executive order, will be charged with recommending a “high-quality” statewide evaluation system for teachers and principals based on student performance. The 15-member council, composed of state education officials, higher education leaders, school administrators, charter school representatives, a businessperson, parent and student, has until December to make its recommendations.

By issuing an executive order and bypassing legislation, Ingle said Ritter takes politics out of education policy and hands the keys for reform over to the experts.

“We need to be working on what is the best evaluation system and not what’s the best we can get depending on your political point of view,” Ingle said.

SB 36, sponsored by Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, and Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, passed through both the Senate and House with overwhelming bipartisan support in just two days — far speedier than the normal time frame to pass a bill. However, the bill’s passage coincided with the failure of a measure adopted last year that promised $110 in funding for K-12 depending on the health of the state budget. The bill was repealed as billions in budget cuts still loom.

Jane Goff, a member of the state’s school board, said the new evaluation data promised by SB 36 would help the state retain half of its teacher trainees who are currently lost to better opportunities out of state.

“This opens the door for non-traditional teacher candidates to come into the system — those people who really are of the quality that’s needed and have the ambition to teach,” Goff said.

The newly formed council and SB 36 point to the state’s strategy in winning the federal grant. State applications for the grant are scored using a rubric with 500 points possible in six categories. The category for improving teachers leads all others in points, with 138.

“What we hoped to do was show our strong commitment to improving the quality of teachers and leaders and to do it with a combination of legislative and executive authority,” Johnston said.

Selected states will post the highest rubric scores in four major categories: improving teacher effectiveness and distributing quality teachers in the state, developing common standards and enhancing assessments, improving the collection and use of data to enhance teaching and learning, and improving low-performing schools.

By passing SB 36 before the Race to the Top grant application deadline, legislators assured the law would be included in their grant application. But the nearly 30 education bills introduced the same week will not be considered in Colorado’s bid.

Education Commissioner Dwight Jones said the government’s latest moves have made Colorado’s Race to the Top bid more complete.

“I think it’s the right work,” Jones said. “If you think about Race to the Top, as the governor alluded to, it supports the reform agenda that Colorado has already been implementing.”

Not every state is buying into the program.

Texas Governor Rick Perry said his state is opting Texas out of the Race to the Top program because its strict criteria and tight-fitting standards violate the state’s rights.

“If Washington were truly concerned about funding education with solutions that match local challenges, they would make the money available to states with no strings attached,” said Perry in a statement. Perry’s office said Texas would have to spend up to $3 billion to realign its education system with national standards. Texas is one of four large states eligible to receive a $700 million grant.

Colorado is unique among most states because it has seen little resistance from its school districts to Race to the Top. About 75 percent — or 134 school districts representing 94 percent of the state’s student population — have agreed to take part in the program if Colorado is selected. A large number of school districts in Ohio and California derailed full-fledged united support in those states.

“If you want the buy-in of the people who are in the trenches, collaboration I think is essential to the process,” Ritter said.

According to grant rules, participating school districts will receive at least half of the grant funds. Ellen Dumm, O’Brien’s spokeswoman, said districts in the state have to produce a budget plan before receiving the funds. Most Colorado districts that chose to opt out from participating with Race to the Top are mostly housed in rural communities across the state. O’Brien said the districts opted out after overwhelming experiences with past federal programs.

“Between No Child Left Behind and then the stimulus money, they had a very hard time reporting. They didn’t have the staff to track all this level of money and report on it and audit,” O’Brien said. “They were very afraid of having to work on a big project that they didn’t have the resources for.”

Regardless of grant distribution, all state school districts will benefit from reform improvements the state makes, O’Brien said.

Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, said the state should be leery of accepting additional federal money. Schultheis was one of seven senators to vote no on SB 36.

“Those (dollars) are basically financed through debt,” he said. “I just don’t want us to continue the habit of getting money for anything. That excludes normal programs where we already do that. But when it comes to the increase of federal dollars to Colorado, we need to stand firm against that,” he said.

President Barack Obama announced Tuesday he is planning to extend the program. He said he is requesting $1.3 billion from congress to further reward reform states and expand the program to individual districts.

The Race to the Top program was crafted out of Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Sponsor Johnston, a former principal at the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts in Thornton and former education adviser to the Obama’s campaign, said the president’s education reform plan advances his ideals from the ground up.

“The idea is that you can change the way government operates,” the freshman senator said. “From the No Child Left Behind model where you’re trying to federally mandate all these changes and work with districts and states that are resisting, we’ve adopted something with clear ideas for reform and are letting states compete for the programs. But they can still choose not to.”

Colorado is competing with several states that have also recently instituted statewide reform to strengthen their bids. According to the New York Times, California recently passed legislation to allow students to leave underperforming school districts. States like Florida, Illinois and Tennessee also raised caps on charter schools.

O’Brien said Colorado’s unified reform efforts distances its bid from the competition.

“We may or may not be successful this round in Race to the Top. It’s very competitive, it’s very thorough,” O’Brien said. “But part of the way we’ll be evaluated is on the likelihood that we can implement (it) and I would take our way of committing to implementation over how some other states are doing it through conflict any day.

“We are arm in arm together going forward,” she said.

Anthony@coloradostatesman.com