Colorado wants to win $400M for school reforms |

Colorado wants to win $400M for school reforms

Associated Press Writer
Denver, CO Colorado

DENVER, Colorado ” The Obama administration is offering $4.4 billion to a select group of states willing to push school reforms, and Colorado officials are working on a pitch to win what lawmakers call the education Powerball.

It could bring another estimated $400 million to Colorado over four years, depending on how many states are chosen and how big they are. Between eight to 10 states are expected to get the additional funding.

The federal government won’t say what changes it’s looking for until next month. But after the stimulus bill was passed, state lawmakers from both parties worked to pass several bills aimed at boosting Colorado’s odds of winning the money. It was one of the few major issues where Republicans and Democrats could agree.

One measure would set up a statewide system to track the performance of teachers and principals to help close the so-called “teacher gap” where less experienced teachers tend to work in low-income schools.

Another provides more options for overhauling low performing schools. Current law allows them to be turned into charter schools but a new bill would allow the state or school districts to also intervene.

The state has no money to fund these projects. They would only become reality if Colorado wins the stimulus money.

Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who heads the effort to win the so-called “Race to the Top” money, endorsed the changes. She said Colorado has a good track record supporting charter schools and is overhauling its curriculum standards to align them with international standards.

But she said Colorado must show it’s willing to go even further ” and its final bid for the money, due in October, will have to make people uncomfortable to have a chance of winning.

Gov. Bill Ritter will decide Colorado’s final proposal. O’Brien said it could include lengthening the school day or requiring Saturday classes for struggling students.

Or the state could pledge to use some of the money for teacher bonuses or launch more merit-based pay systems pioneered by Denver schools, she said. Jefferson County is considering the move, but O’Brien said it needs to hire consultants and reprogram computers to transform its pay system.

During a trip to Denver last month, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said states that want to win the money should focus on four areas: Tracking how much students learn from one year to the next; improving academic standards and tests; getting better teachers into high-poverty schools; and improving struggling schools.

In speeches about the competition, Duncan has talked about transforming school systems and the need for urgent reforms.

O’Brien said the changes are needed both at struggling, low-income schools and those with good local reputations that still may not be competing on a par with students around the globe.

“Everyone’s going to have to lift their game,” said O’Brien, who listens carefully to each Duncan speech for hints of what else he’s looking for. She’s assembling volunteers to brainstorm on the four ideas he has revealed so far.

Assistant U.S. Education Secretary Carmel Martin said the money is an incentive to raise standards for all students and close the achievement gap between minority and poor children and their white counterparts in more affluent schools.

“It will reward those states that go furthest and fastest toward reform,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Education won’t discuss any state’s chances of winning. But Colorado was cited by the Education Commission of the States as one of 16 model states for those looking to compete.

The commission, a nonpartisan organization that helps states develop education policies, has held up Colorado’s work in three of the four areas outlined by Duncan. Its weak spot is making sure experienced, effective teachers are working in struggling schools.

Some states have plans in place for distributing teachers, such as the tracking system Colorado lawmakers passed this year. But Mike Griffith, senior school finance analyst for the commission, said it has been difficult for states to tackle because of union contracts with teachers. He said no one knows yet if states will be rewarded for what they’ve already done or because of what they promise to do.

“It seems like Colorado has a good shot at this,” Griffith said.


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