Finishing Out of the Money

05/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Oh well.

Hopes were so high that Colorado would either win a nice chunk of cash in the first round of the Federal Race to the Top competition, or at least finish close enough to carry momentum into the second round. A talented team worked on the plan and expressed cautious optimism about the state's chances.

But Monday morning's announcement (first made via Twitter) from the U.S. Department of Education dashed even that cautious optimism. Colorado finished 14th among the 16 finalists for first-round money, its application praised for its ambition but criticized for its paucity of detail in some areas, and its lack of buy-in from some key constituencies. See our comprehensive coverage of the first-round results.

So where does this leave the state? Well, for one, Colorado now has no shot at the bonanza - $377 million - it was hoping to land in the first round. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made it clear in a conference call with reporters Monday that states would have to stick to previously publicized funding guidelines for Round 2.

This means that instead of a possible $377 million, Colorado at most could garner $175 million in Round Two. Big chunks of the original plan will have to be chopped out or scaled back. A smaller-bore, less ambitious proposal can't help its chances. Is it even worth applying? Some people are already asking that question.

A first-round defeat also raises questions about whether more school districts will decide to bail on the project. Given that significant portions of Colorado's first-round application would have gone toward funding or building out new state systems (data, standards, assessments and more), a much smaller grant would leave no more than $87.5 million to be shared among all participating districts.

The lack of universal district buy-in was a weak point for the first round application. Only 134 of 178 districts signed on. Although the districts on-board represented the lion's share of students in the state, failure to get all districts involved undoubtedly hurt the state's application.

This isn't speculation. Duncan made it clear Monday that the two Round One winners - Delaware and Tennessee - caught reviewers' attention by submitting proposals that "touched 100 percent of the students in those states."

What else hurt the application? A cold shoulder from local teachers' unions. The Colorado Education Association endorsed the application, but 59 percent of local affiliates declined to sign on. One reviewer criticized the state for not saying in its application how it "intends to address these issues going forward."

Part of the reason the CEA endorsed Colorado's application was that Gov. Bill Ritter chose collaboration over confrontation. He created by executive order a Governor's Council for Educator Effectiveness, including state and local union representation, to study the thorny issues surrounding teacher evaluation. Some other states played hardball and passed legislation mandating the use of student achievement data to evaluate teachers.

But Ritter said, "That's simply not how we go about school reform in this state... Collaboration is essential to this process." His executive ordered directs the council to develop evaluation methods in which "at least 50 percent" of teacher evaluations are based on the academic growth of their students. Thin gruel compared to other states.

The council's creation didn't appear to hurt Colorado's application, at least not significantly, according to reviewer comments. But the lack of high-quality alternative pathways for producing teachers and principals hurt the state's chances.

Overall, as State Sen. Michael Johnston noted, Colorado "left 33 points on the table on the teachers and leaders section." Those points would have vaulted the state's application to within striking distance of the prize.

Delaware and Tennessee found the magic mixture of aggressive reform and widespread buy-in. Union support in both states was universal. I'm not familiar enough with either state to know how this was accomplished. But it was never going to happen in Colorado.

So now what? Ritter's council has begun meeting, and apparently will continue to do so despite lacking the $605,000 it needs for staffing. That money was to have come from the Race to the Top grant.

Johnston, meanwhile, plans to introduce teacher quality legislation that was stalled by Ritter's order creating the council. Johnston has been working hard to get the CEA and other interest groups to support the legislation. But it will be a tough battle.

There has been a lot of brave talk over the past few months about how Colorado is committed to this reform path, regardless of whether the state benefits from federal largess.

But in this horrendous economic climate (latest manifestation: The University of Colorado Monday boosted in-state tuition by 9 percent for most undergrads), it's simply impossible to see how we're going to pay for many, let alone all of these ambitious plans.