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Racing to the Top in the Centennial State

By Alyson Klein — October 09, 2009 2 min read
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I spent the last few days in Colorado, one of the nerdier states when it comes the Race to the Top competition, talking to state officials and other stakeholders about what the state is doing to get its grant application ready.

States will be judged partly on the extent to which they have community buy-in for their ideas, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s draft regulations on the Race to the Top program. Colorado is taking that part of the application very seriously. They have invited anyone in the state who is interested to have a voice in the process.

So far, about 650 people have participated in some capacity, either by attending one of a series of meetings, or by joining a working group (they have four, each one focused around a different one of the “assurances” spelled out in the stimulus law, which include turning around low-performing schools, data systems, standards and assessments, and teacher quality). Believe it or not, there are actually K-12 students at these meetings, along with the usual suspects (teachers, parents, non-profits organizers).

But, of course, the ultimate authority for the application rests with the Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat who is likely to face an uphill re-election battle in this purple state.

Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, also a Democrat, is the face of the state’s Race to the Top efforts and has been extensively reaching out to community organizations. While I was out there, she spoke to a group of mayors about Race to the Top, for instance.

And next month, she plans to travel to some of the more remote districts that serve some of the neediest students in the state, to sell them on the state’s proposals and get their input. A lot of the state’s preliminary materials on the grant were developed with the goal of showing high-needs districts what’s in it for them, a must in this local control state, where participation in RTTT activities is likely to be largely voluntary.

I asked O’Brien what she thought of the Gates Foundation’s decision to give 15 states $250,000 to help with their applications. O’Brien joked that she thought the super-foundation must have felt those states needed assistance in putting together their applications, but knew Colorado would do just fine on its own.

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” she said, laughing.

Gates recently opened up their grants to every state, as long as they meet certain criteria. Colorado hasn’t yet decided whether to go after one of the grants-to-get-a-grant, O’Brien told me.

Ritter isn’t the only Democrat in the Centennial state facing a potentially precarious re-election battle. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, the former superintendent of Denver Public Schools, may also have a tough time hanging onto his seat in 2010. Plus, Colorado is a swing state that President Barack Obama may need to win re-election. In fact, he traveled there to sign the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which created Race to the Top.

I asked O’Brien whether she thought the political dynamics might improve Colorado’s chances of winning a Race to the Top grant. Again, she responded by joking around, saying state officials are crossing their fingers, hoping that politics plays a part. But, she said, she’s heard that the Department plans to select a non-partisan team to go over the applications, so she doesn’t think that politics will be a major factor.