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Down to the wire on R2T

Colorado’s effort to win part of a $4.35 billion education reform grant is coming down to the wire, with just two weeks to go before the federal Race to the Top deadline.

Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s largest district, is among the 70 districts with school boards already voting to participate in the reform plan if the Colorado application is approved.

Leaders in another 40 districts have indicated their boards are likely to say yes, state officials said, but the holiday break has delayed formal votes. School boards in Aurora, Cherry Creek and Denver are expected to vote in the next week.

At least one district is a definite no – the 105-student Kit Carson school district on the Eastern plains, where Superintendent Gerald Keefe warns of federal encroachment in local education decisions.

“People don’t understand,” he said, “if you let the federal government get their hooks in any deeper, they’re not letting go.”

Keefe’s district also refuses to accept federal Title 1 dollars so it’s not subject to the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind act.

He readily acknowledges that turning away federal money is easier when your property tax base is fed by oil and gas companies.

But in other districts, where money is tight and the number of students far exceeds a hundred or so, agreeing to participate in Race to the Top could mean millions of dollars.

Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson pointed out many of the reforms in the state’s application already have been mandated by state lawmakers.

That includes implementing the new academic content standards recently approved by the State Board of Education and creating a new assessment system to go with them, steps carrying an estimated price tag of $80 million.

“It’s what we have to do to move our work forward for kids,” Stevenson said. “If we don’t get these dollars, if we don’t get Race to the Top, how are we going to do that?”

Points for participation

The federal scoring rubric for Race to the Top awards more points to states with broad participation from their school districts, represented by signed agreements.

But just how much is enough – Is 50 percent of districts good enough? What about 75 percent? – is not spelled out.

Of the 500 potential points a state can earn for its application, according to federal guidance issued in November, 45 points are possible based on the participation of local school districts willing to sign agreements.

Nina Lopez, who’s working to gain district support, said the 110 of the state’s 178 districts expected to participate so far represent more than 80 percent of Colorado’s 800,000-plus schoolchildren.

“We’re going to work with districts as best we can, for as long as we can, to provide information they need to hopefully sign on,” said Lopez, special assistant to Education Commissioner Dwight Jones.

Districts willing to participate are asked to sign Memoranda of Understanding or MOUs outlining their responsibilities – such as implementing the reforms and responding to requests for information.

They sign off on a preliminary “scope of work” or reform plan and, if Colorado wins a piece of the billion-dollar prize, they have 90 days to complete a final, more detailed scope of work with the state.

But if the district and the state cannot agree on that final reform plan, the district can withdraw, Lopez told district officials listening in on three webinars over the past several weeks.

“The scope of work will be negotiated separately with every district,” she said, noting the disparate sizes, cultures and needs of the state’s districts. “If we’re unable to agree on a scope of work, your MOU can be nullified.”

Bringing unions on board

The MOUs require the signature of a district’s superintendent and school board president. The signature of the district’s teachers union is not required but is highly encouraged, Lopez said.

“If you have an association, we encourage you to engage in conversation with them,” she told district leaders. “They are absolutely key to your success.”

Monday, Lopez said about a dozen unions across the state had signed MOUs alongside district leaders.

It’s uncertain how many of the state’s 178 districts have associations that might be asked to sign on to the state’s R2T application. Deborah Fallin, spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, said the CEA has active affiliates in 154 districts and members in virtually all of the state’s districts.

In other states, unions have opposed Race to the Top efforts. Education Week, the weekly journal, reported Dec. 30 that Florida’s top union official used a newspaper ad to discourage local affiliates from signing Race to the Top agreements.

CEA has taken a different approach, with union leaders participating in committees convened to recommend reforms to Gov. Bill Ritter, who has final say over the state’s application.

“We believe that we have had some very positive impact on the direction some of this stuff might have taken,” Fallin said.

Still, the CEA has yet to see a copy of the final application – due out this week – and is not ready to commit to a positive review.

“The possibility exists, there could be a part or two of the final draft we would have difficulty with,” she said. “And when we see it, we’ll let you know.”

Union concerns – in Colorado and nationally – have centered around the federal government’s push to link student achievement to teacher evaluation, pay and retention.

“We are going to be concerned about the rights of employees so that they can’t be arbitrarily and capriciously hung out to dry because some kids in their class didn’t do well on CSAP,” the state tests, Fallin said. “No one will ever want those poor kids.”

Last month, concerned by a rush to get signatures before an initial Dec. 23 deadline for MOUs, the CEA sent out an email to its local affiliates urging them not to sign anything just yet.

Fallin said the direction now, given the time crunch before the federal deadline, is that local union leaders who feel comfortable working with their districts should do so.

Racing to the finish

Lopez, with the Colorado Department of Education, said state leaders have shared prior drafts of the state application with selected groups, such as the CEA, and will share the final application as well.

They won’t post it publicly until after Jan. 19, she said, because of the competitive nature of the grant. A summary of the final plan is expected to posted Wednesday or Thursday on the state’s Race to the Top web sites.

Linking student academic growth to the evaluations of teachers and principals is worth 58 points on the Race to the Top scorecard, among its highest-value areas.

“It’s a balance for us to accumulate as many points as we can while still honoring local interests,” Lopez said. “What you will see in the plan is specific language about what will be completed by when.”

For example, she said, “by 2012, all participating districts will have in place high-quality evaluation systems for their personnel.”

But since the state has just adopted standards and is working on a testing system for them, she pointed out, the first six to 12 months of the four-year grant period is likely to be devoted to identifying those new measures of student growth.

Union presidents in Denver, Aurora and Jeffco said Monday that they want to see the final language before they put their pens to any agreements.

“I don’t think that you should ever sign something when you don’t know exactly what you’re signing,” said Brenna Isaacs, president of the Aurora Education Association. “And because I’m signing on behalf of the licensed teaching force in Aurora Public Schools, I have a responsibility to them.”

Douglas County’s union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, is the largest union in Colorado to sign an MOU for Race to the Top.

President Brenda Smith said the union and district have worked well on past projects that could have been contentious, such as adopting one of the country’s oldest performance pay plans in 1993.

“As long as it’s done with us and not to us,” she said, “we think we can come up with a successful plan.”

Click here to read the latest summary of the state’s Race to the Top plan, updated Monday.

Click here to visit Gov. Bill Ritter’ and Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien’s Race to the Top web page and here to visit the Colorado Department of Education’s Race to the Top web page.

See a list of previous Ed News stories about R2T and other stimulus funds.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.

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