Who Is In Charge

Colorado in sweet 16 for Race to the Top

Video and audio clips are at the bottom of this story.

Colorado’s bid for $377 million in federal Race to the Top education stimulus funds was strong enough to land it among the 16 finalists, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Thursday morning.

Duncan said Colorado, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee made the finalist cut. Forty states and the District of Columbia applied. Colorado is the only western state selected.

More states were named finalists than many observers had expected. The states named Thursday will be invited to Washington the week of March 15 to make presentations. States that don’t make the cut can apply in a second round later this year.

Education Commissioner Dwight Jones and Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien
Education Commissioner Dwight Jones and Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien discuss Colorado's selection Thursday as a Race to the Top finalist. Democratic Sens. Suzanne Williams and Bob Bacon are in the background.

Meeting with reporters about an hour after the announcement, Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien and Education Commissioner Dwight Jones were understandably upbeat.

“We are absolutely thrilled to be considered one of the top states in the country,” said O’Brien, who helped lead the state’s effort. But, she added, “We’re very aware that all we’ve done so far is make the first cut.”

O’Brien also praised the state’s collaborative approach in developing the application, which has been questioned by some observers.

“We think we’re one of the states that really has the highest likelihood of successfully implementing our plan because of the broad public input process we had. … If what’s right for Colorado ends up being what’s right in the eyes of Washington, it will be a huge win-win.”

Jones, noting that R2T “is a difficult, competitive process,” added, “We know we still have a lot of work to do. I’m very optimistic. … No matter what the outcome of the competition, we still plan to continue with Colorado reforms.”

O’Brien announced that Gov. Bill Ritter has named the members of the Educator Effectiveness Council that will develop a proposal for a new teacher evaluation and tenure system. This is the piece of the state’s R2T plan that has been criticized by some who want a faster pace of reform on this issue. (List of council members.)

“We are committed to streamlining and modernizing our teacher effectiveness system,” O’Brien said. “The idea will be to figure out what we need in rules and state policy” concerning educator evaluation.

She said teacher evaluations and student performance will be tied to compensation, retention, promotion and tenure. “I think we’re going to have a very finely tuned performance management system in our districts.”

O’Brien said state officials hadn’t yet learned how Colorado’s application was scored nor the details of the presentation process in Washington later this month.

“We are cautiously optimistic. Now the hard work of explaining our proposal in detail will begin,” she said.

R2T has been the focus of state policymakers’ attention for months. One lawmaker called it the “golden ticket” for solving the state’s school problems; other officials have tried to subtly downplay expectations.

The competition required states to detail how they would use the money in four broad policy areas:

  • Standards and testing that prepare students for college and work.
  • Data systems that measure student growth and success and help educators improve teaching.
  • Recruitment, development, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially in the most challenged schools.
  • Turnaround plans for the lowest-performing schools.

Applicants were graded on a 500-point scoring system by outside judges hired by the U.S. Department of Education. The interviews can move that total score up or down. But the final decisions rest with Duncan.

Colorado education leaders have long felt recent education reforms have positioned the state reasonably well for the competition, except in the area of educator effectiveness.

In contrast to some states, which pushed through new laws on teacher preparation, evaluation and tenure, the Ritter administration as part of the application instead opted to create the Council for Educator Effectiveness that will develop a proposed new educator evaluation system, based at least 50 percent on student performance.

The administration has defended that strategy as a “consensus” approach more likely to create sustainable reforms because of the involvement of a wide spectrum of interests, including teachers unions.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, had been working on comprehensive evaluation and tenure reform legislation before Ritter’s plan was announced. He says he still plans to introduce a bill but said Wednesday it might not happen for several weeks.

Much of what Colorado proposes would pay the costs of implementing previously approved but unfunded education reforms such as the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. The state proposes to use the $377 million in these ways:

  • Implementation costs – $21.5 million
  • Rollout of and training in new standards and in use of data – $23.8 million
  • Subsidies and incentives for schools to acquire new instructional materials and formative assessments – $18.6 million
  • Review of and partial subsidies for new interim assessments – $8.6 million
  • Improved state data capture of district information and a statewide enrollment system – $24.4 million
  • Other data improvements, including data on educator effectiveness – $52.5 million
  • Colorado Center for Educator Excellence – $5.7 million
  • Office of Educator Effectiveness to help districts – $4.5 million
  • Governor’s Council for Educator Effectiveness – $605,000
  • Rollout of new evaluation systems in districts – $67.8 million
  • Increase the number of Teach for America teachers in Colorado in low-performing schools – $24.5 million
  • Incentive grants for highly effective educators – $2.6 million
  • Grants for high quality teacher preparation programs – $6 million
  • School Leadership Academy – $7.3 million
  • Increased enrollment in Advanced Placement courses – $8.2 million
  • Grants to districts to develop alternative compensation plans – $5.5 million
  • Aid to teachers to gain expertise in high-needs subject areas – $5 million
  • Colorado Turnaround Center – $41.4 million
  • CDE Turnaround Office – $4.8 million
  • Innovation Acceleration Grant Program to develop school turnaround strategies – $6 million
  • Undesignated grants to districts for implementation of various reforms – $37 million

(See this CDE document for details on each proposed spending area.)

The R2T process required formal sign-on by school districts (known as “local education agencies”) if they want to receive funds from the program. Half of total funding is to go to districts. In Colorado, 134 of 178 districts signed on, representing 94 percent of state students, including 94 percent of free and reduced lunch students and 95 percent of minority students.

Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien is leading the state's Race to the Top effort.

Leading up to the announcement, state leaders have been measured in their comments about Colorado’s chances. O’Brien has repeatedly said that Colorado will apply for the second round of R2T if necessary and that the plan will provide a blueprint for future education initiatives even if Colorado doesn’t garner any federal money.

While R2T has received most of the attention, it’s only part of the total education funding that state has received, or is eligible for, under other programs of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

For example, some $620 million has been used to shore up the budgets of state colleges and universities and nearly $270 million is available to school districts under various pre-existing federal formulas. The bulk of that money is for Title I and special education programs. (More information from CDE on other education stimulus programs.)

R2T funding, which will be spread out over multiple budget years, also is small in the context of total annual K-12 spending in Colorado, which this year is about $5.7 billion in state and local funds.

Members of the Council for Educator Effectiveness

  • Colorado Department of Education: Nina Lopez, Special Assistant to Education Commissioner
  • Colorado Department of Higher Education: Lorrie Shepard, Dean, School of Education, University of Colorado – Boulder
  • Teachers: Shelly Genereax of Brighton School District 27J, Kerrie Dallman of Jefferson County Public Schools, Amie Baca-Oehlert of Adams District 12, Nikkie Felix of Aurora Public Schools
  • Public School Administrators: Margaret Crespo, Principal of John Evans Middle School in Weld County, Tracy Dorland, Executive Director of Teacher Effectiveness in Denver Public Schools
  • Public School Superintendent: Sandra Smyser, Superintendent of Eagle County Schools
  • School Board Members: Bill Bregar of Pueblo District 70, Jo Ann Baxter of Moffat County
  • Charter Schools: Colin Mullaney, Principal of Cheyenne Mountain Charter in Colorado Springs
  • Public School Parent: Towanna Henderson of Denver Public Schools
  • Student: Shelby Gonzales-Parker of Justice High School in Denver Public Schools
  • At-Large Member: Matt Smith, Vice-President of Engineering, United Launch Alliance

Do your homework


EdNews video of O’Brien and Jones news conference:

Audio of today’s announcement from Colorado officials:

Video of Secretary Duncan’s announcement:

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and, if there is community support, reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the Elevate slate’s position on reinstating the school district’s proposed voucher program.