Colorado tapped as finalist for race to the top funds

By Anthony Bowe

Colorado leaders and education officials rejoiced Thursday when the U.S. Department of Education announced Colorado as a finalist in the Race to the Top program and a stake in $4.35 billion in grants.

Colorado is one of the finalists from 15 state and Washington D.C to have emerged from a pool of 41 applicants that submitted proposals in January. Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien noted that Colorado is the only state selected west of the Mississippi.

“We are absolutely thrilled to be considered among the top states in the country for their education reform plans, but we’re also very aware that all we’ve done so far is make it through the first cut,” O’Brien said at a press conference Thursday. O’Brien is credited by Gov. Bill Ritter for leading the charge in organizing the state’s grant proposal.

Colorado officials submitted the state’s proposal for a $377 million grant. The state’s application was strengthened when the Governor issued an executive order the day the application was due and signed a fast-tracked bill only days before.

Seventy-five percent of the state’s districts, representing 94 percent of Colorado’s student population, signed on to the proposal.

Regardless of which states are selected for grants in April, Ritter said the state has postured itself for success.

“Colorado is committed to providing a 21st century education that fully prepares our students to compete and succeed in a global economy,” the governor said in statement on Thursday. “I am pleased we have been named a finalist, but this is a competitive grant process and we still need to make our case. Regardless of the outcome, we now have a roadmap that leads directly to stronger and more effective student-centered education reforms.”

Senate Bill 36, allowing teacher-training institutions to gauge success of their programs by tracking trainees up to three years after they’ve left, passed the Colorado Assembly in only two days. Ritter also introduced an executive order mandating the Council for Educator Effectiveness, which is charged with recommending a “high-quality” statewide evaluation system for teachers and principals based on student performance. The appointed council will have its first meeting March 11.

Judges in Race to the Top’s initial round analyzed and scored the 41 state applications. For states that didn’t make the cut, a second phase of Race to the Top will take applications June 1.

“We are setting a high bar and we anticipate very few winners in phase 1,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Phase one finalists will send state officials to Washington D.C. during the week of March 15 to present their proposals to a panel of judges. The states will be evaluated based on reform efforts in five categories: improving statewide teacher effectiveness, enhancing assessments and standards, improving the data collection systems to enhance teaching and learning, and improving low-performing schools.

“We are equally confident about the next step in this process. No matter what happens, however, we will not give up our work,” said Dwight Jones, Colorado education commissioner.

O’Brien and Jones will be lead the team presenting Colorado’s proposal in Washington.

“If what’s right for Colorado ends up being right in the eyes of Washington that will be a huge win-win, but we’re going forward no matter what because this is a proposal that really builds on solid work and has buy in for going forward,” O’Brien said.

A handful of Colorado leaders submitted congratulatory statements following the announcement.

“Colorado hasn’t waited on Washington to make progress in our public schools or to implement the kind of changes we need to help our kids get ahead. But this announcement is further proof that Washington is starting to pay attention,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, former superintendent to Denver Public Schools.

“I know Lieutenant Governor Barbara O’Brien and her team will be well prepared when they come to Washington, D.C. to present Colorado’s proposal,” said U.S. Rep. Diana Degette.

“This is tremendous news for Colorado,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Udall. “Governor Ritter and Lt. Governor O’Brien deserve great credit for advancing our state in this competition, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to encourage Obama Administration officials in supporting us. Making the list of finalists is a great achievement in itself — and I know everyone is ready for the next round.”

State Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and Colorado Education Association President Beverly Ingle also offered celebratory remarks.

The Race to the Top program was crafted out of President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. In January, Obama announced he was seeking an additional $1 billion from congress to extend the program currently set to expire at the end of this year.