Gates Foundation funds made available for state Race to the Top application

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced that it will open up its offer of financial help with the Race to the Top application to all states. That’s good news for Colorado, which will likely apply for the funds.

The $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition, which has been billed as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s greatest tool for reform, will grant stimulus funds to states that develop comprehensive reform strategies in four areas:  standards and assessments, data systems, teacher hiring, firing and evaluation, and turning around struggling schools. Duncan has made it clear that the money will not be divided equally among the states.

In this high-stakes environment, the Gates offer of help with the application process could be key for states like Colorado, which the New Teacher Project has ranked(pdf), along with 15 other states, as “competitive” in the race (a change from an earlier “somewhat competitive” rating for Colorado). The nonprofit ranked just two states, Florida and Louisiana, as “highly competitive.”

According to the AP, to be eligible for Gates Foundation funds, states will have to meet eight criteria. Among other things, they’ll have to demonstrate the ability to link student testing data to teachers and demonstrate clear support for a proposed common standards effort.

The Gates Foundation move apparently comes in response to criticism over the Foundation’s announcement last summer that it had handpicked 15 states for a $250,000 grant toward creating a strong Race to the Top application.

Critics argued the move indicated a too-close-for-comfort relationship between the Gates Foundation and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s office. And some, like the National Conference of State Legislatures, felt that the Gates Foundation, not the U.S. government, would end up actually picking the winners.

From the New York Times:

“We expressed concerns that it appeared that Gates people were involved in helping the department pick winners and losers,” said David Shreve, federal affairs counsel at the national conference.

So will Colorado apply for the funds? In an email to the Colorado Independent, Evan Dreyer, spokesman for Gov. Bill Ritter, said that the state hasn’t yet seen any specific application guidance from the Gates Foundation yet, so he couldn’t say for certain.

“However, we are interested in seeking as much support as possible,” said Dreyer, “so if we are eligible we likely would apply.”

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