Colo. Among States That Fell Short In Race To The Top

Nine states and Washington, D.C., were awarded $3.4 billion in education grant money on Tuesday. The federal education grant competition called Race to the Top asked states to come up with the most compelling plans for education reform. But what about the losing states — especially the ones that made big changes? NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Barbara O'Brien, lieutenant governor of Colorado.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Race to the Top is now over. The U.S. Department of Education awarded $3.4 billion in grant money yesterday to nine states and to Washington, D.C.

The race pitted states against each other for that money, and to win, they had to pitch the most compelling plans for education reform. Some states made big changes in an effort to win. And so, for the losers, the question now is what to do. Where will they get the money that they'd hoped would come for the federal government?

And for some of those answers, we turn now to Barbara O'Brien, who is lieutenant governor of Colorado. Welcome.

Lieutenant Governor BARBARA O'BRIEN (Democrat, Colorado): Hello.

SIEGEL: Colorado finished just outside the money many people felt you would likely win. What happened? Do you know?

Lt. Gov. O'BRIEN: We were hearing from national experts who read all of the proposals that we should end up in the top two, three or four in the whole country. They loved our proposal and they thought we had very bold, doable plans.

So all we can figure out is that, yet again, Western states that have a little different way of doing things just, you know, we have a bunch of reviewers who don't understand that there's a different way of life than the East Coast.

SIEGEL: But when you speak of bold, doable plans, in a nutshell, what were you going to do and can you do them now without the money from Race to the Top?

Lt. Gov. O'BRIEN: We had passed the most far-reaching teacher and principal evaluation system in the whole country and in fact had already formed a council that was beginning to design it. So that was one piece of it.

Another one was that we have one of the most robust charter school environments in the country, and that was supposedly going to give us a lot of points. That was something the Department of Education was looking favorably on.

So we had - we had really heard from people that we put ourselves out there in just the way Arne Duncan had been describing.

SIEGEL: Well, what is the state of those reforms without federal money in the Race to the Top?

Lt. Gov. O'BRIEN: Some of them we can do anyway. Designing the program is really a bunch of people who understand data systems and educators who can define how you measure good teaching. They're already working, and they'll continue working.

We are going to have to look around hard for the money to actually create the data system that can then go out to every school district across the state.

SIEGEL: The winners, it has been pointed out, have been heavily in the eastern half of the Continental U.S. Hawaii was the only Western state that was among the winners. You expressed some Western regional resentment to that just now.

What do you think of this process, which is not political, it's not about regions vying and having blocks and votes and getting a share of the money as they see as fair?

Lt. Gov. O'BRIEN: You know, I don't think it was political, but I think it was really tone-deaf to the variety across the United States of America. One of the requirements, for example, was that if you had a low-performing school, you had to close it down and then re-open later in some new form.

And I totally understand that for large, urban districts, and we are already doing that. But we've got a lot of districts with one school in them. You know, you can't close down a school that's the only school for 60 miles and follow that format and re-open it a year later.

So there were just some things written in that made it very tough for us to get all the points we needed, when we have, you know, 60 of these tiny school districts, but they need to be part of this plan, as well.

SIEGEL: Is your response, then, this wasn't entirely fair to the West, but we hope they'll get it right the next time they do something like this? Or do you try to somehow overturn the result and appeal it?

Lt. Gov. O'BRIEN: Oh, no, we're not going to appeal the result, but they've gotten it wrong, from our perspective, twice now. So I don't think they're particularly learning from these lessons. So we're going to go our own way and figure out how to keep working on this reform agenda, which is our agenda anyway.

We didn't have to turn somersaults to fit in with this proposal. We were on this path. So it'll be slower, and we'll have to scramble for the funds to do it, but it's the Colorado plan.

SIEGEL: Lieutenant Governor O'Brien, thank you very much for talking with us.

Lt. Gov. O'BRIEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Lieutenant Governor Barbara O'Brien of Colorado, which did not win money in the Race to the Top.

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