Colorado a finalist again in “Race to the Top”
By Colleen O’Connor
Colorado is one of 19 finalists in the second phase of the federal “Race to the Top” competition, and independent observers say the state has a good chance of being among the 10 to 15 winners, who will be announced in September.
“It’s not unrealistic to be enthusiastic,” said Joe Williams, executive director of the New York-based Democrats for Education Reform, who noted that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised Colorado when he announced the finalists Tuesday.
“In dozens of other cities, from Tampa to Pittsburgh to Denver to right here in D.C., union leaders and administrators are moving beyond the battles of the past and finding new ways to work together,” Duncan said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington. “And I urge union leaders, administrators and school boards all across America to follow the example of their reform-minded colleagues and have a much more open mind towards common-sense reforms.”
The tough work Colorado lawmakers did this year passing Senate Bill 191, which ties educator evaluations to student academic performance and changes the way teachers get and keep nonprobationary status, “is exactly the kind of stuff this administration is looking for,” Williams said. “I think Colorado will be rewarded for that.”
In the first round of competition for $600 million in grants, Colorado was one of 15 finalists. Delaware and Tennessee took home the prize in March.
Colorado lost big points for not having in place a plan to get effective teachers and principals into schools.
For the second round, Colorado scaled back its $377 million request, asking for $175 million over four years. About $90 million would go directly to the participating districts, while the rest would go to statewide support of the districts.
The second-round winners will share a $3.4 billion pot.
“Sense of momentum”
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, credited for the passage of SB 191, said moving into finalist position again suggests “Colorado has regained its place among the leading states in the country on education reform.”
“There’s a sense of momentum right now for Colorado,” Johnston said, “and that’s a good place to be.”
Much of Duncan’s speech focused on the importance of data in assessing student achievement, and Colorado has an edge there too, said Rich Wenning, associate commissioner of the Colorado Department of Education.
“Colorado is a leading state when it comes to making information public about school performance,” he said. “We’ve been recognized by other states, and the National Council on Measurement in Education just gave us an annual award for outstanding dissemination of education measurements to the public.”
Nina Lopez, director of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the Colorado Department of Education, is cautiously optimistic.
“Our chances are better this time, given that (Duncan) said a number of states (would get grants),” she said. “The big unknown is how much the other states changed their applications.”
On Aug. 10, a Colorado delegation will go to Washington to defend the application before a review panel.
One challenge will be explaining that most education decisions are made by local school districts, rather than the state Department of Education, Lopez said. The delegation will have to convince reviewers that “the state will do something, even though we can’t really make people do it.”
She is confident the state has the track record to back up this promise.
It would be an easier sell, however, if the state’s largest teachers union, the Colorado Education Association, would make a formal statement of support for the “Race to the Top” bid, Williams said.
“This would help Colorado’s chances of winning tremendously,” he said. “If the union is on board, it would be much more believable (that things) would be implemented at the local level.”
Union not in support
But the CEA is adamant that it will not support the new application.
“We were actively engaged in the first proposal,” said teachers union spokeswoman Deborah Fallin. “But we parted ways over the legislation that Johnston believes is the magic answer, and our board in April took the position that we will not participate in Phase 2.”
Williams, who has watched the nationwide race for education reform from the start, said Colorado’s path has been particularly interesting.
“What happened between (the two phases) with the legislation was pretty dramatic,” he said. “It’s had a very strong finish. This is a race, after all.”