Huffpost Denver

Colorado 'Race To The Top' Legislation Promises Merit Pay, More TFA Staff, Better Records

Posted: Updated:

DENVER — Colorado vowed Tuesday to expand merit pay for teachers, change how educators are evaluated, and hire more Teach for America national service recruits as it tries to win $377 million in federal funding for schools.

Colorado made the promises as it seeks part of a $4.3 billion grant package created by the administration of President Barack Obama.

Known as the "Race to the Top" fund, the money is available to competing states that amend education laws and policies. The funds were included in the $787 billion economic stimulus program.

The bid was backed by more than two-thirds of Colorado's public school districts, which account for 94 percent of its 802,000 kindergarten through 12th grade students, along with the teachers union.

Those districts said they would negotiate a merit pay system with teachers if the state wins the money.

Denver already has a pay for performance system, and the state's largest district, Jefferson County, has been considering one.

Participating school districts also agreed to more than quadruple the number of Teach for America teachers in classrooms, from 175 to more than 800.

Gov. Bill Ritter said he signed an executive order creating a council to recommend ways to gauge whether teachers and principals are effective. At least half of their grade must be based on the academic growth of their students, but Ritter also wants to take into account hardships beyond the classroom, such as frequent moves, that might hurt a student's performance.

The teachers union, the Colorado Education Association, sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan supporting Colorado's bid, saying it would help improve the performance of low-income students.

"Our collaboration with the state in putting this together is a big feather for the state of Colorado," CEA president Beverly Ingle said after the proposal was unveiled at East High School in Denver.

Ingle, who represents 38,000 teachers, said she was pleased that state officials are talking about rewarding teachers while making sure they are judged fairly. She also said any new merit pay systems should be based on a clear set of standards and provide a chance for all school employees who work with students, from counselors to bus drivers, to earn bonuses.

Colorado's bid includes a change that lawmakers from both parties rushed to pass in the first three days of the legislative session. It requires the state to keep track of where principals and teachers were trained.

Colorado is expected to compete with more than 30 states for the federal grants. The first of two rounds of award announcements are expected in April.

Colorado wants $377 million over four years, with half going to school districts and half to the state. The money would pay for the proposed changes, not routine expenses. It won't make up for the $260 million in budget cuts schools are facing starting in July because of the state's $1.5 billion budget shortfall.

Ritter, Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien and education commissioner Dwight Jones said they were committed to enacting the changes even if Colorado doesn't win the funding.

"We are not just chasing a shiny penny. We are supporting reform," Jones said.