Race to the Top: Colorado one of 19 finalists in federal education grant contest

Colorado was chosen today as one of nineteen finalists in round two of the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top grant contest. If successful, the state stands to win $175 million. If not, Colorado gets zilch -- which is what happened when it applied for $377 million in round one of the contest. But this time around, Colorado has some new ammunition.

Its biggest gun? The so-called teacher tenure law, which was passed by lawmakers at the last minute this year. The law, drafted by Senator (and former high school principal and Obama advisor) Michael Johnston, would change the way teachers achieve tenure, basing half of the determination on their students' academic growth. The law also makes it easier for teachers to lose that status if they're deemed "ineffective" for two years in a row.

Many teachers don't like the new law, including Mary Pishney, the subject of the Westword feature "Is DPS Holding More Teachers Accountable? You Do the Math!" Pishney and others think the law makes teachers into scapegoats.

But many school administrators and state education officials like the law because it makes it easier to fire bad teachers who maybe didn't start off that way. Some, including state Education Commissioner Dwight Jones, even suggested publicly that passing the law could be key to winning round two of Race to the Top -- and millions of federal dollars.

The Race to the Top judges will likely also smile upon the fact that Colorado has already secured its own money to improve "educator effectiveness," which is school-reform speak for firing teachers whose students aren't learning. Last month, the Colorado Department of Education announced a $1 million grant from two nonprofits to invest in creating statewide goals for educator effectiveness and designing data systems to support them.

Colorado will have to wait until September to find out if $175 million more is coming; that's when the Race to the Top winners will be announced. If the state is successful, $90 million will go directly to school districts. The rest will be used for statewide efforts.

"While we were disappointed not to win in phase one, we have taken the opportunity to sharpen our focus on the more critical elements of our reform agenda," Jones said. "We are eager to partner with school districts that have committed to this important work."

And you can be sure the districts are eager for a slice of that $90 million.