Colorado stumbles in Race to The Top competition

Second round could be uphill but rewarding

By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Colorado stumbled in its first attempt to secure a $377 million grant in the federal government’s Race to The Top competition, losing out to the states of Delaware and Tennessee for a share of the money allotted for massive school reforms.

Gov. Bill Ritter, flanked by Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, discusses Colorado’s losing bid for Race to the Top funding on Monday. Colorado placed 14th out of 16.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

But state officials are hopeful that Colorado will be one of the lucky recipients in the second round of grants later this summer in the education improvement program initiated by the Obama administration.

The U.S. Department of Education announced Monday that Colorado finished a lowly 14th out of 16 finalists in the Race to the Top competition, scoring 409.6 points out of a possible 500 and 45 points less than top-finisher Delaware.

Delaware and Tennessee were the only winning states for first round mega-grants. Delaware will receive an approximate $100 million and Tennessee $500 million over the next four years.

At a press conference on the west steps of the Capitol Monday, the governor and Colorado leaders expressed their disappointment after propelling Colorado into the final round of 16 in the competition.

“Obviously if you’re just going to pick two states out of 50, that’s going to be fairly limiting,” Ritter said. “We still think that we have some chance if we decide to go forward of being funded in phase two. We put a big effort forward in this phase one.”

Delaware and Tennessee “made deep commitments to turning around their struggling schools and their innovative plans reflect that commitment,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement Monday.

Duncan specifically cited the winning states’ ability to deliver reforms statewide.

“Both of them have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools,” he said.

“We’ll look at their applications and see what distinguished Delaware and Tennessee from our application,” Gov. Bill Ritter said in determining whether the state will submit an application for the second round of Race to the Top.

Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones, at the podium, expresses his disappointment Monday at the state’s failing application for federal funds in the first round of Race to the Top. Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien is at right; Gov. Bill Ritter and Rico Munn from the Colorado Dept. of Higher Education are at left.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

State officials say they are in “wait and see” mode before they decide to apply in the next round. Officials were expected to make a recommendation to Gov. Bill Ritter Thursday after hearing second round rules in a conference call with the Department of Education Thursday.

Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones, who led a group of Colorado officials along with Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien in presenting the state’s application in Washington last month, also expressed his disappointment.

“It’s kind of hard to be confident when you get that initial ‘no,’” Jones said. “But taking nothing for granted, as the governor alluded to, I’m still excited that we were one of 16 finalists, if there’s any confidence in that.”

The applications for the second round of Race to the Top starts are due June 1. All states except first round winners are eligible to apply.

States will be required to cap their grant requests for the second round based on student population. Colorado fits into the “category 4,” making the state eligible for a $60 to $175 million grant.

Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who has worked diligently on Colorado’s application for more than a year, said she and other drafters would regroup with education leaders across the state and decide whether to pursue the grant.

“We’ll look at the comments and the score sheets and see what they tell us and what kind of changes we can make that still fit with the Colorado spirit,” O’Brien said. “But we also believe that there’s a reason we were the only western state because we believe in pulling people together and reaching a common vision of where we need to go forward.”

O’Brien said that reforms across the state are still a priority.

Ritter also said the state would eventually implement the planned reform strategies laid out in their initial application, such as an upgraded statewide data system.

“For our purposes we need to move on our reform agenda, and for those things that cost money, we hope to get Race to the Top funding in the second phase, but if we don’t, we’re going to have to look at how we pay for that reform agenda and not let kids lag behind,” the governor said.

Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones talks to a reporter at a press conference Monday outside the state Capitol.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

Reform efforts will be placed on a longer timetable as officials decide how to implement changes without a large grant, O’Brien said.

“Clearly we’ll have to focus down on the real core elements that we have to do for this to be a success, and then see if other things can just get phased in over a long period of time and pay for it differently, so it’s clearly going to make the reform process slow down,” O’Brien pointed out.

Colorado’s application was docked points on not being able to attract new and talented teachers and maintain those resources.

In January state lawmakers hurriedly passed legislation to improve Colorado’s application. Senate Bill 36 allows teacher-training academies to track trainee effectiveness in the field once they graduate.

Ritter also issued an executive order before the application deadline creating the Council for Educator Effectiveness charged with recommending a “high-quality” statewide teacher evaluation system.

“We went to Washington and the panel did not ask anything about that council,” said Deborah Fallin, spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association (CEA). “They asked about implementation, they asked about local control, but they did not bring up the governor’s council.”

Fallin said Colorado’s state supervised and county administered education infrastructure hurt the state’s chances at the grant, as well — not because it’s flawed but because it’s unlike any system in the eastern half of the country.

“The western local control is something they don’t get back east — they just don’t get it,” Fallin said. “We have in this state 178 school districts and CEA has almost 200 local associations, and neither the state nor the CEA tell our folks what they’re going to do. And that’s not how it is in the east where states issue wide mandates and have more centralized control.”

Although 134 Colorado school districts signed on to the reforms proposed in the application — representing 90 percent of the student population — the state might have lost points for the 44 counties and three large locals that opted out.

Members of Project VOYCE, a student-led advocacy group promoting student expression and participation in school improvement efforts, attend the press conference Monday.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

Aurora, Boulder and Cherry Creek local teacher unions, and a score of smaller unions, did not sign on to the application. Mostly suburban districts in Colorado opted out of Race to the Top, citing bad experiences with mandates passed down through the No Child Left Behind Act, officials said.

Colorado finished 13th in scoring among the top 16 in the category testing a state’s ability to implement reforms among its districts.

CEA President, Beverly Ingle concurred with Ritter and O’Brien who didn’t see collaboration as a hindrance in Colorado’s application.

“The strength of our proposal was the collaborative process used to develop it,” Ingle said in a news release.

An estimated $3.4 billion in grants are still available for second round applicants. Duncan told Ritter Monday that ten to 15 states would be selected for grants in August.

As state officials mull whether to go forward for round two, attention now falls on the General Assembly and specifically Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver. Johnston was the lawmaker who initiated SB 36 to boost the state’s application in January. Now he’s planning a bill that he said would strengthen teacher effectiveness and address tenure. The bill has late bill status.

“Without reform to Colorado’s teacher evaluation and tenure policies, it will be difficult to compete for a second round prize in Race to the Top,” said Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial. “We need to fast-track a fix to address concerns of the panel of judges.”

Not everyone in Colorado lost out on big education grants this week. The Department of Education announced Tuesday that the Denver Public Schools Residency Program in District 1 received an $8 million federal grant Tuesday. The district was one of 12 in the nation that received the grant, which is also funded by the Reinvestment act.

“These grants will strengthen teacher preparation and residency programs to ensure that new teachers, whether entering from college or from other careers, have the skills to boost student learning and be highly effective in today's diverse and challenging classrooms,” Duncan said.

Anthony@coloradostatesman.com