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Colorado’s R2T share may shrink

If Colorado wins the federal Race to the Top competition, the prize may be only $60 to $175 million, according to new information from the U.S. Department of Education.

Colorado officials previously have estimated roughly that the state could receive any where from $200 million to $500 million. Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, briefing the State Board of Education Thursday morning, said the most recent previous estimate was $200 to $400 million.

The new, smaller pot of money is “clearly not the amount we thought we were shooting for … we’ll just have to adapt to that reality,” O’Brien said.

The news prompted some state education officials Thursday to privately muse about whether the smaller prize would be worth the effort. Even if Colorado received $175 million, that would be less than 2 percent of current annual state K-12 spending.

The federal DOE late Wednesday began releasing revised guidance documents for R2T, setting out the requirements state must meet in their applications and how applications will be judged. Interested states must file their bids by mid-January.

Among the new information was a grid of five “non-binding” categories for states, based on population. The richest category, $350-$700 million, lists California, Texas, New York and Florida.

Colorado is listed in Category 4, along with 15 other states, including neighboring Utah and Kansas.

The budget guidance said, “These ranges may be used as rough blueprints to guide States as they think through their budgets, but States may prepare budgets that are above or below the ranges specified.”

But, the document also noted, “The Department is not bound by these estimates. The Department will decide on the size of each State’s award based on a detailed review of the budget the State requests, considering such factors as the size of the State, level of LEA [local education agency] participation, and the proposed activities.”

Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien briefed the State Board of Education on Race to the Top on Nov. 12, 2009.
Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien briefed the State Board of Education on Race to the Top on Nov. 12, 2009.

The lieutenant governor said the state will come up with its plan, see what the estimated cost is, “see what happens and go from there.”

The overall R2T pot is $4.35 billion, with $350,000 million set aside for later distribution to states that participate in common testing programs.

According to Education Week, after applying states are graded, they will be ranked in order and the money allocated until it runs out.

O’Brien said overall “we’re very encouraged” about the final R2T guidance. She added she believes Colorado’s existing and proposed education reforms “are very much in alignment” with what DOE is looking for.

Still, she cautioned, “We don’t know how they’re going to score states that intend to do something” rather than have certain reform programs already in place.

The DOE’s new, 775-page guidance on R2T sets out a complicated application that largely follows the department’s earlier draft guidance but does contain some interesting differences. Applications will be graded on a 500-point scale and for the first round are due next Jan. 19. Those awards will be announced in April, and the deadline for the second round of applications is next June 1. Colorado plans to apply in the first round.

The guidance contains six main selection criteria (each of which contains additional criteria) and six “priorities” that states must address in their applications.

The selection criteria are State Success Factors, Standards and Assessments, Data Systems, Great Teachers and Leaders, Turning Around the Lowest-Achieving Schools and General.

The State Success Factors is new and is supposed to be a statement and demonstration of a state’s overall education reform agenda – including the extent to which that agenda is supported by local school districts (local education agencies – LEAs – is the jargon). This criterion accounts for up to 125 points.

Half of a state’s R2T money is supposed to go directly to participating local agencies. Education Commissioner Dwight Jones is in the middle of a statewide tour to recruit local districts into Colorado’s R2T effort.

“The application requires states to document their past success and outline their plans to extend their reforms by using college- and career-ready standards and assessments, building a workforce of highly effective educators, creating educational data systems to support student achievement, and turning around their lowest-performing schools,” according to the DOE news release. (While Colorado has launched several education reform initiatives in recent years, test scores have remained generally flat.)

Among the next four criteria, Great Teachers and Leaders accounts for 138 points, while school turnaround is worth only 50 points. Colorado education leaders generally have acknowledged that the state may be weakest in the area of teachers and leaders.

Charter and innovation schools, which have been a controversial part of the R2T discussion, are part of the general category, which is worth 55 points.

On charters, the DOE’s new documents say, “While the Department believes that charter schools can be strong partners in school turnaround work, it does not believe that charter schools are the only or preferred solution to turning around struggling schools.”

In another interesting portion of the new guidance, the department seems to have broadened its view of how student achievement relates to teacher performance and evaluation.

The earlier draft guidance was interpreted – and criticized in some quarters – as tying teaching evaluation too closely to standardized test scores.

“The final application also clarifies that states should use multiple measures to evaluate teachers and principals, including a strong emphasis on the growth in achievement of their students. But it also reinforces that successful applicants will need to have rigorous teacher and principal evaluation programs and use the results of teacher evaluations to inform what happens in the schools,” a DOE statement said Thursday.

The six priorities are: A comprehensive approach to reform, emphasis on science and technology, improvement of early childhood learning outcomes, expansion of longitudinal data use, P-20 coordination and school level autonomy.

During her appearance Thursday O’Brien also briefed the SBE about the work of the four volunteer advisory committees that have been helping the state develop its R2T application. Those four panels will meet together Friday at the Capitol for a wrap-up session.

The lieutenant governor praised the work of the groups, saying Colorado had a much broader process than any other state and that the four groups showed a remarkable degree of unanimity in their recommendations. The panels developed proposals on struggling schools, teacher and principal improvement, data use and standards and testing.

O’Brien noted, “What the committees recommended isn’t necessarily what will be in the final proposal,” explaining that the application will be reviewed by various experts before it’s finalized.

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