Seven states including Colorado have been awarded shares of $200 million in round three of the federal Race to the Top competitive grant program.

ARRA logoColorado plans to use its $17.9 million to help pay for the design of a state model evaluation system. The other major use of the money will be to support the work of “content collaboratives,” groups of educators and experts that will develop methods for assessing student mastery of new state content standards, especially in subjects not tested by the statewide assessments in reading, writing, math and science.

Half of the funding will be available to Colorado school districts to spend on their own work in the same areas.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaking with reporters during a conference call about the awards, said, “Colorado is helping lead the country [and] has been an absolute leader” in education reform. “What was so pleasing to me was that Colorado didn’t stop their reforms and kept going forward” even after losing out in round two of R2T.

Duncan said he talked with Gov. John Hickenlooper this week, and he praised the governor’s “courage and commitment” to education reform. “Our investments can hopefully expedite those changes” in Colorado.

Colorado education Commissioner Robert Hammond said the R2T grant “recognizes the excellent and hard work of all of the individuals who helped draft the state’s reform agenda and provides much needed financial support to maintain and accelerate momentum on the state’s reform efforts.

“The Colorado Legacy Foundation, El Pomar Foundation, Donnell-Kay Foundation, Piton Foundation and the Daniels Fund all came together to help fund and support the development of Colorado’s grant application, and their contributions made our application very strong.”

Tony Lewis, executive director of Donnell-Kay, returned the compliment, saying, “I’m just really pleased this CDE staff hung in there … and applied past lessons and obtained a meaningful grant.”

Inside round three

The seven states were among nine that didn’t quite make the cut in the $3.3 billion second round last year, when Colorado lost its request for $175 million amidst questions about the quality of the judging. The round three applications were partly a refinement of what states had proposed in round two.

Earlier, Colorado asked for $377 million in R2T’s first round, in which only two states won grants. And a week ago Colorado also finished out of the money in the specialized Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge competition.

South Carolina didn’t apply for round three, and California’s application was incomplete. The seven remaining states were expected to win grants in the so-called “consolation round,” although as CDE executive Jill Hawley noted, “It was still a process where we figured we had to do our best.”

The other six winners are Arizona, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Here are additional details on Colorado’s plans, in bureaucratic language supplied by the U.S. Department of Education:

“Colorado will act upon recently passed legislation, which directs school districts to adopt new educator evaluation systems consistent with its Phase 2 application, by providing technical assistance and statewide training to prepare school districts to implement the required elements of their educator evaluation systems. Colorado proposes that the described initiatives and activities represent the State’s biggest levers for achieving its ultimate goal of preparing all students for postsecondary and workforce success.”

The grant is for four years. Hawley said CDE will be working with school districts over the next 100 days to help them prepare applications. She said she hopes the money for districts can be front-loaded so they can spend it in the first year. Go here for a spreadsheet showing minimum district-by-district allocations. The amounts assume all districts participate and could be hire if some districts don’t.

Full costs of reform much higher

The funding is a welcome resource for implementation of Colorado’s underfunded education reform agenda, especially Senate Bill 10-191, the principal and teacher evaluation law. But the estimated total cost of rolling out that program is much higher.

Earlier this year a study done for the state estimated the costs of reform implementation at $384 million (see story).

CDE officials have asked the legislature for about $500,000 in 2012-13 to help pay some SB 10-191 implementation costs. Hickenlooper separately has asked for $7.7 million for that purpose.

The unfunded costs of recent education reform legislation are a key issue in the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit, which the state lost at the trial court level on Dec. 9. Hickenlooper announced Wednesday the state would appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court (see Lobato archive for background).

Grants Colorado has won

While Colorado has gone 1-for-4 in Race to the Top, the state has received substantial amounts of other funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. CDE received a $17.4 million grant last year to improve data systems, and Colorado received about $160 million through the 2010 “Edujobs” program that backfilled some state education cuts.

The state also received $312 million of stimulus funds in 2009 for programs serving poor and special education students. Also in 2009, the state used $622 million of general stimulus funds to support K-12 and higher education budgets.

Race to the Top nationwide

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia now have won various kinds of R2T grants. The effort has been the Obama administration’s best-known education initiative, and Duncan said, “Race to the Top has been a pivotal program that has generated more progress in improving our nation’s education system over the last three years than we’ve seen over the last decade.”

Some states have experienced hitches in implementing R2T-funded programs, and federal officials this week sent a warning to letter to Hawaii about its lack of progress. “We will absolutely track states’ progress,” Duncan said. He noted that the federal DOE will put out a “report card” on R2T progress in January.

The federal budget recently passed by Congress includes an additional $550 million for Race to the Top. “The bill includes language that will allow the Department to create a district-level competition and continue the investment in the Early Learning Challenge,” according to a U.S. DOE statement.

“We would very much like to have a district-level competition,” Duncan told reporters. “We’re going to really think through what that competition would look like.”

Colorado’s previous Race to the Top history