Blame game and finger-pointing abound as Minnesota ponders losing out on Race to the Top school funds

Minnesota, a blue state that long has prided itself as a national leader in education innovation, was not even a first-round finalist in the race to receive piles of education money that will be handed out by the Obama administration.

How could that possibly happen?  How could Minnesota, home of some of the nation’s top-achieving students, not get even a whiff of this federal loot?

On Thursday, it was almost a Quentin Tarantino-like standoff scene in Minnesota education and political circles as people tried to answer that question. In this case, the characters were pointing fingers, not guns, at each other.

The governor’s office was blaming Education Minnesota, the teachers union.

Education Minnesota was blaming the Department of Education.

A state representative was blaming the governor.

Etc.

Finger-pointing part of the problem
All of this finger-pointing might hint as to why Minnesota isn’t getting real high marks these days in Washington. Collaboration among those looking for education improvement is one of the things the feds said they are seeking. It’s hard to collaborate with someone who has his fingers wrapped around your neck.

For now, this is the bottom line: Minnesota, which expected to receive as much as $250 million in Race to the Top funding, now will have to rewrite its 1,000-page grant and hope to get re-consideration in June. The problem with that, however, is that the state will not discover the reasons its first grant proposal was rejected until next month.

The 16 finalists are Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee. They won’t learn until April if they’ll actually receive federal money.

Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, suspects that even when Minnesota receives its report, the official reasons its grant didn’t pass muster won’t be revealed.

He suggests the real reason for the failure is a combo platter of union politics and presidential politics. Minnesota’s relationship with the feds, Kyte suspects, is not helped by the fact that Gov. Tim Pawlenty is racing about the country saying what a lousy president Obama is.

The official reason that will be given for the failure, Kyte says, likely will have to do with teacher licensing.

“The feds said, ‘Deal with teacher quality or else,’ ” said Kyte. “The weakest part [of the Minnesota grant] was that they [the feds] wanted alternative licensure programs. Our Department of Education couldn’t deal with that because of the way our system is set up.”

Alternative licensure, it should be noted, means getting teaching licenses into the hands of older professionals, who might be brought into classrooms to teach math and sciences. Alternative licensure also affects the Teach for America program, which brings bright, young college grads into districts who do not have traditional teaching training.

Overall, Kyte, whose organization represents superintendents from across the state, was calm about the rejection.

“We’re embarrassed that our state’s record of innovation seems to be getting shrugged off,” said Kyte.

Some see federal funds and added expenses as a wash
Nonetheless, except for the large, poor urban districts — Minneapolis and St. Paul stood to be the biggest winners — Kyte said the federal money for most districts would have been “a zero net gain.”

The cost of dealing with new federal mandates, applying for grants and the like, would have just about equaled the amount of money most districts would have received, he said.

But Kyte’s calmness was not typical Thursday.

More typical was the angry statement of Brian McClung, who is Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s assistant chief of staff.

“It’s hard to race to the top with an anchor tied to your leg,” McClung said in his statement. “For years the teachers union has fought against any meaningful education reforms. First they opposed charter schools and open enrollment and now they’re fighting tenure reform, alternative licensure and meaningful performance pay for teachers. If Minnesota is to have any chance of success in round two of this competition, the Legislature must adopt these types of reforms immediately.”

But while the governor’s office and other Republicans were blasting the union, Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, a key legislative leader in education policy, was blasting Pawlenty.

State Rep. Mindy Greiling

State Rep. Mindy Greiling

She says the governor’s fingerprints were all over the application and that there were Pawlenty “poison pills” written into the grant proposal. She said she did not sign a letter of support for the grant and believed it was doomed from the time it was sent.

Poison pills?

She said that the proposal was “95 percent good stuff,” but that it included such Pawlenty pets as “enhanced Q-comp and changing tenure.” Pawlenty, she said, long has wanted for teachers to essentially have to re-apply for their jobs every five years, a killer in terms of ever getting educators and administrations to work together.

“We should have gotten this,” said Greiling of the Race to the Top money. “We should have had an application that reported in a positive way our leadership in charter schools and alternative teacher compensation. We have those things.”

Instead, she said, the Department of Education, under Alice Seagren, sent “a radical application.”

Greiling, McClung disagree on failure reasons
She wrote a letter to Seagren, expressing her concerns, as the application was about to be submitted.

“Now,” Greiling said, “he’ll blame it on the unions.”

McClung described Greiling’s charges as “absolute lunacy. All one needs to do is look at the criteria for Race to the Top to see that they are seeking more reform and accountability, not less, as Rep. Greiling suggests. … It’s pretty shocking how Minnesota Democrats are apparently way behind Washington [and Chicago] Democrats when it comes to education reform.”

Interestingly, as the day went on there was no official statement from Seagren, who apparently was stunned that Minnesota wasn’t among the finalists. Instead, the department released McClung’s flaming statement.

The villain of the day, from the Republican perspective, was Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota. He didn’t seem troubled by the attacks, in part, perhaps, because he said he was receiving a steady stream of calls of support from teachers.

Tom Dooher

Tom Dooher

“We’re not surprised they didn’t get the award,” Dooher said. “One of the pieces in this is supposed to be collaboration, a collaborative relationship among all parties. We had several meetings with the commissioner, but not really collaboration. We hope we can be listened to in the second round.”

Though Greiling and Dooher don’t always get along, they were expressing similar points of view Thursday.

Dooher said that Education Minnesota’s relationship with Seagren “is very good.” But he believes this application represented the work of the governor.

“I think she does the best she can, but she has a boss [Pawlenty] with a different idealogy,” he said.

Dooher said way back in December Education Minnesota presented the commissioner a proposed grant application.

Teachers union says proposal flawed
“The proposal we put out in December was research-based,” said Dooher. “It involved getting money to the classroom, smaller class sizes, closing the achievement gap. … I never saw their final proposal, except for a PowerPoint presentation. From what I was shown, it appeared that they were pushing failed legislative proposals from this governor. There was not enough research-based innovation. Teachers know what needs to happen in the classroom, and that was not in this proposal.”

Was it the failure of Education Minnesota to sign on to the effort that doomed the state’s chances of grabbing the cash?

Dooher did note that many of the states that did make the final cut are “right-to-work states,” where those balky unions don’t get in the way of so-called reform. On the other hand, the acrimony between the Florida teachers union and the state education department there is far greater than in Minnesota, and Florida is getting money.

It is important to note, however, that not all teacher union leaders were in agreement on the failings of Seagren/Pawlenty and the application.

Mary Cathryn Ricker, who leads the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, was “devastated” when she learned the Minnesota proposal hadn’t made the cut.

“We had some concerns [with the proposal],” Ricker said, “but we were excited by most of the proposal. We felt they [the education department] listened to us. We were excited about some of the big picture things.”

In the past, Ricker said, St. Paul administrators and teachers have had to try various innovations “on a dime.”

She had believed that Minnesota would be a recipient of a grant and that her district would have the money to fund “exciting ideas.”

“This [federal money], combined with our new contract language, had many of us dreaming of the possibilities,” Ricker said. “We can’t give up, but we’re back to trying to innovate on a dime.”

At the moment, it’s hard to see all of the Minnesota principal players coming together as they attempt to reload and apply again.

Dooher is disgusted with Washington.

“The goals [of Race to the Top] are good,” he said. “We agree with the goals. But the prescribed methodology is not so good. We’ve gone from trying to be like Texas [under the Bush administration] to being like Illinois, and neither one is very good.”

Washington, he said, long has been good on mandates and promises but has delivered mostly woe.

“Mandates are disturbing,” he said. “The federal government has their role, but we’ve seen since the early 1970s, they’re not too good at follow-up. Back then, they mandate special education and promise they’d pay 40 percent. They’re at 17 percent now. … If they’d pay their 40 percent there would be no debt in any school district in the state. … You can’t be creative through a big federal bureaucracy.”

One other point Dooher, the villain, wanted to make to Minnesotans.

“Stand up for kids and what they need,” he said. “You look at states with strong unions — they have two things in common: higher test scores for kids and higher salaries for teachers. I’m proud of that.”

It remains to be seen how long all parties will continue to point their fingers at each other. The new June deadline is close, given the magnitude of the task at hand. And collaboration never has seemed so far away.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/05/2010 - 10:46 am.

    The “largest special interest group in the state,” the teachers union, is more interested in “control and power” not education.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/05/2010 - 11:20 am.

    You know, there are a lot of things I disagree with leftists about that I could easily chalk up to just that…’disagreements’. We disagree, but let’s go have a beer and talk about the Twins.

    But what the NEA and its affiliates have done to the public schools through its buyout of the Democrat party leaves me sincerely, and completely disgusted.

    How can people that claim to be so concerned about ‘the little people’ be so utterly callous when it comes to the littlest people of them all…our kids?

    This isn’t rocket science folks. If you were to graph academic achievement, as measured by graduation rates, ACT scores, percentage of college freshmen requiring remedial coursework in the basics alongside a timeline of the rise of the teachers union it would be a perfect inverse correlation.

    The destruction of our school system goes beyond a simple disagreement between me and leftists.

    As long as the Democrat party sustains it’s sock puppet relationship with the NEA while millions of kids hit the streets unable to read, write or do simple mathematics, the only beers we’ll be sharing is the one I pour down the front of its collective shirt.

    I pray for the day teacher’s wrench their once proud profession from the greasy fist of the self-serving union thugs that have stolen it from them.

  3. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 03/05/2010 - 11:33 am.

    This is an utter failure and leaders of all stripes should be ashamed. Seemingly, in spite of ourselves, our schools still produce some of the best high school graduates in the state. Unfortunately, our students of color have not shared in this success. Regardless of how our schools are doing now, there is room and need for improvement if the USA is going to matter globally in the next 25 years.

    Ultimately, this is an application that was developed by the MN Department of Education. The buck stops there. Instead of using this grant application process to find a positive approach, the same old approach was rolled out by the Pawlenty team. The governor excoriates the DFL on the bonding bill and every tax bill saying “Why do they continue to pass things that I won’t sign?” This is the mirror image of this approach.

    Education has their point of view. As humans, their own self-interest is important to them. As educators, we hope that their self-interest is HEAVILY influenced by what is the best way to educate kids.

    New applications are due in June. maybe Governor Pawlenty should heed his party’s advice to Obama on health care – START WITH A CLEAN SHEET OF PAPER! It is not too late Governor – just once, do something collaboratively!

  4. Submitted by Van Mueller on 03/05/2010 - 12:38 pm.

    The Race to the Top debate shows how how politicized education issues have become in Minnesota. The Governor is clearly in control of the State Department of Education. The opinions of the commissioner of education and professional staff of the department of education don’t count. With the governor it is my way or the highway. He used the Race to the Top application to further some of his personal ideas such as alternative teacher licensing, merit pay(Q comp) and expanded charter schools. The school districts who signed on to the Governor’s proposal did so for the money and out of fear of further reprisals from the governor’s veto pen. These ideas are not research based and are very problematic when it comes to improving student achievement.

    Where were the proposals for expanded investments in early childhood education and some of the other research based ideas espoused by Growth & Justice?

    Bashing teacher unions and by implication teachers and using fear as a motivator is no way to get the best proven ideas for school reform implemented. Minnesota children and youth deserve better!

  5. Submitted by dan buechler on 03/05/2010 - 12:55 pm.

    Hey I’ll have a beer wit ya as long as there are 2 clearly marked unobstructed exits. Anyways there are a lot more kids going to college now then there were in the 60’s, but on MPR today they had a academic from California stating we need more tradespeople and dependable young office workers. So there ya go that’s my two quarter tap and a fist of salted snacks.

  6. Submitted by MA Saw on 03/05/2010 - 01:00 pm.

    Why would anyone listen to the rantings of McClung? He is just about as far out of touch with reality as the Senator from Oakdale.

    The King of the Onion Capital of the World (Pawlenty) is where the fingers SHOULD point. His policies have destroyed the Minnesota Department of Education. He has planted so many of his ‘people’ in the department, who have NO background in education – they are known as “plenty plants”. These are the people that put together the “race to the top” proposal; which is why it failed. No one with REAL knowledge of education actually worked on the proposal. Persons involved with the writing of this proposal had only one initiative in mind- carry out the King of Onions bid to further himself in the political arena. It backfired folks, and the losers are really those who remain in this state and think of the children of this state first, and do not have their eyes on DC. Before submitting another proposal, the taxpayers of Minnesota should INSIST that the plenty plants be removed from MDE and only those involved in education at the district level be allowed to write the proposal then and only then will there be a TRUE to Minnesota Value proposal be written.

    For those who really do not know the facts – Commissioner Seagren is only a figurehead at the department, the Deputy Commissioner, close personal friend and campaign worker to Pawlenty, runs MDE. Taxpayers should question how much of her current education they have paid for and how much of it came out of her pocket.

  7. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 03/05/2010 - 01:11 pm.

    Thomas,

    Do you really want to go back to the days where whenever a teacher got pregnant, she was immediately fired? Or if you gave a poor grade to the Mayor’s kid, you could also be fired? Unions have their place, not that I agree with everything going on with them.

    Part of the problem as I see it as a former teacher, is that too often politics and ideology tie teachers hands.

    As someone who taught American History, many, many years ago at Armstrong High School, I was able to teach to a student’s knowledge and ability. You can no longer do it the way we did back then. I don’t remeber the name of the practice, but before we started a unit, I gave a pre-test that was very similar to the final. I was able to find out what kids already knew and what they didn’t; if they understood what factors were at play with the issues in that unit or not.

    Once in a while you would have a student who would score 98-100% on the test. That student certainly didn’t need to sit through all the lectures and busywork of a unit. So I was able to assign that student a research paper on one of the five themes of American History that our team focused on throughout all the units. One of the students I had consistently scored in this level on all of the units. As a result, she did a research paper that covered all of the units that year on one theme. By the time she finished it, she about had the equivalent of a Master’s thesis — and all this before the internet.

    Now I know some schools offer gifted students opportunities like this, but from my experience as a parent in rural Minnesota, I can tell you far to many do not.

    As for those students whose test scores indicated that they knew next to nothing about the unit, I had more time to work with them individually as I did not have a student acting up that I had to deal with all the time (or sitting around bored out of their gourd). You could walk both average and below average students through the unit more easily because you knew what they knew and understood. You knew what to focus on and what could be skimmed over.

    In the end, the final test generally would show that 95% percent of the students knew the information from the unit – names, what happened, etc. AND COULD APPLY IT IN AN ESSAY FORM. Now not all of those studends got A’s, but they did pass.

    Thanks to Michele Bachman, that practice was thrown out of schools and its use forbidden. One of the many reasons I got out of teaching.

    Today teachers spend so much time teaching to tests that teaching actual subject matter and why and how things happen in history is almost forgotten. Also, teachers can no longer have just a History teaching certificate. You must be certified in “Social Studies”, so your ability to have a deep knowledge of one area of that broad category is severely limited.

    As for your comment Ron, I don’t see TPaw being any less interested in control and power. That’s his whole thing now as he ends his term needing to look like Presidential material to the far right of the spectrum.

  8. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/05/2010 - 02:29 pm.

    This morning, George Bush’s Education Secretary discussed her new book on education. She said she has come to the conclusion, supported by research, that such innovations as charter schools promise much more than they deliver, and that students are often less successful than if they had had traditional schooling. As a loyal Bush employee, however, she gave right-wing ideas more of a selling effort than she could ever do now.

    Minnesota may actually count itself lucky to have lost this grant with “Pawlenty’s fingerprints all over it.”

    Federal grants shouldn’t be about fads. They should be about smaller class sizes, tutors or classroom assistants to provide extra help. And educating teachers to follow examples like Sheila E’s who identify gaps in knowledge and teach to eradicate them or to provide more challenge to those who are gifted (Comment #7).

  9. Submitted by Dave Callaway on 03/05/2010 - 02:30 pm.

    Note to the Governor: How about putting the State of MN, ahead of your presidential aspirations for the duration of your administration? If that doesn’t seem workable to you, follow the example of Sarah Palin, and quit, instead of being a lame duck, vindictive, anti-Minnesotan, jerk!
    You may have missed the results of the 2010 CPAC straw pole, see: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0210/33225.html . The results are there, read them for yourself.
    We, (Minnesota), once made the cover of “LIFE” magazine, the Minnesota Miracle, was the headline! Today, it would probably be titled the “Minnesota Disaster, Under Tim Pawlenty”!
    It’s not going to look good on your resume of notable “achievements”!

  10. Submitted by Tom Horner on 03/05/2010 - 02:47 pm.

    The sparring is a debate over who’s right rather than what’s right. Meanwhile, it was announced this week that the four year high school graduation rate of Minneapolis African Americans is about 33%; overall, among African Americans and Hispanics — our two under-18 growth populations — the HS graduation rate is 60% and falling. Tell me that ANYTHING you’ve heard in the debate over the lost Race to the Top dollars is relevant to the most serious crises in our schools and our society??????

  11. Submitted by Van Mueller on 03/05/2010 - 04:03 pm.

    Tom, the low graduation deficiencies you mentioned could be met with some of the investment and research based strategies recommended by Growth & Justice; e.g investing in early education etc. Do you have some solutions? What are they? I didn’t see any mention of any in your comments.

  12. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 03/05/2010 - 06:08 pm.

    Tom Horner, the problem is that nothing in the Race to the Top application had anything to do with the problem that you raise. Pawlenty used the application process to take one more swing at Education MN. Education MN used their baseball to bean Pawlenty. In baseball, you can’t get rid of the team, you fire the manager. Thomas Swift, a good beer drinking exercise with loud and enthusiastic discussion would be fun. The bar could put up a fence between the two crowds. Probably what the legislature used to do after hours. I am sure that Rukavina would love to participate. Probably could not find a beer drinking Republican legislator willing to have one in public.

  13. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/05/2010 - 09:48 pm.

    I suspect that stated reason for the “loss” if we are to characterize it as that for the Race to the Top money will be exactly what states were warned against quite sometime ago. That would be how stimulus dollars were used. If state education money were used to correct budget imbalances qualification for Race to the Top money was to be amended. Seems to me money for education in this sate are pretty much in limbo due to the Governor’s maneuvering.

  14. Submitted by dan buechler on 03/06/2010 - 06:58 am.

    How come nobody mentioned the upcoming 4 day schoolweek in North Branch or Forest Lake? This terrible idea has migrated from sparsely populated rural areas (where it may have made some sense) to the suburbs now. Tom or anybody, I can bet that our school districts are going to deliver even more inequitable packages with a few rich SW burbs getting great benefits and the rest have austere budgets and migration from those districts to other schools for those who can afford it. Please discuss the future cuz its gonna happen. Avoid cliches please.

  15. Submitted by myles spicer on 03/06/2010 - 12:16 pm.

    Whatever happened to “the buck stops here”? Look, in the end Pawlenty is the governor. This is a Pawlenty administration. All the cabinet posts involved are Pawlenty appointments. Problem is, we have a governor and adminstration that has driven our state into decline and consistently chooses to blame others.

    End of story!

  16. Submitted by Howard Miller on 03/07/2010 - 07:05 pm.

    Back in the early 1960’s, high school graduates were a minority in the US population. Most working adults didn’t even have that credential.

    Now, more than 2/3ds of working adult Americans have a high school diploma. That is a dramatic improvement – public education (educating some 92% of Americans) is a real success story.

    Coincidentally perhaps, unionization among teachers grew.

    People who suggest teacher unions are the problem in education just don’t know how different most classrooms are from when we passed through, years back, when fewer languages were spoken, and fewer students succeeded.

    Schools deal with TONS more accountability than Wall Street firms. And have much more evidence to prove their worth to America. Teacher union bashers, defense private sector, non-union Wall Street’s trashing of trillions of dollars of wealth, compared to educations’ (both public and private) central role in building it.

  17. Submitted by Howard Miller on 03/07/2010 - 07:41 pm.

    apologize for typo/edit error … should have read,

    ” …. defend private sector, …”

  18. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/08/2010 - 09:49 am.

    Not sure where you came by the data that led to your conclusion, Howard. It certainly doesn’t fit the mainstream research.

    Here’s a synopsis of the most recent peer reviewed research I could find (2007; it comes to a conclusion 180 degrees from yours).

    It’s by James J. Heckman of the University of Chicago:

    http://ftp.iza.org/dp3216.pdf.

    “After adjusting for multiple sources of bias and differences in sample construction, we establish that:

    (1) the U.S. highschool graduation rate peaked at around 80 percent in the late 1960s and then declined by 4-5 percentage points;

    (2) the actual high school graduation rate is substantially lower than the 88 percent estimate of the status completion rate issued by the NCES;

    (3) about 65 percent of blacks and Hispanics leave school with a high school diploma and minority graduation rates are still substantially below the rates for non-Hispanic whites.

    In fact, we find no evidence of convergence in minority-majority graduation rates over the past 35 years.

    The decline in high school graduation is of interest in its own right as a measure of the performance of American schools. It has important implications for interpreting a wide variety of educational statistics.

    For example, part of the slowdown in male college attendance rates documented by Card and Lemieux (2001) is due to declining rates of high school graduation among males.”

    ===========================

    The unionization of the public school system does not, in and of itself account for 100% of the downward spiral, but it is clear the we cannot hope to begin a reversal while there is a group of stake holders blockin any attempt at any reform that put their own best interests second of those of the students they are supposidly serving.

  19. Submitted by William Pappas on 03/08/2010 - 05:37 pm.

    Mr. Swift your first post nails the problem through it’s knee jerk hatred of the teacher’s union. Educate Minnesota members are democrats because that party has shown a more fact based approach to education reform as well as sympathy to all working men and women. Republicans can’t stand that fact and hate them for it. Pawlenty does not base his education policy on moving education forward for our children, he simply advocates for policies that will hasten the demise of all teacher’s unions. That is the republican’s driving motivator and really exposes their efforts for what they are. The application for Race to the Top funds is just another example of Pawlenty’s politics trumping real education reform.

  20. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/08/2010 - 07:00 pm.

    ‘Atta boy, William…

  21. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 03/08/2010 - 10:30 pm.

    The state should offer low interest loans to students, guaranteed by parents, to cover private education, from age 2.

  22. Submitted by William Pappas on 03/09/2010 - 06:43 am.

    You’ve got to feel a bit sorry for Commissioner Seagren who must advocate for teachers while McClung and Pawlenty demonize their very existance. The reason she is commissioner is that she is an order taker and not an innovator or boat rocker. If Pawlenty really wanted to accomplish something at the Department of Education he would install people there with a record of drive, innovation and independence. How can they expect reasonable negotiations from Education Minnesota when McClung has spent the last eight years portraying treachers as lazy, overpaid, stuck in the past and responsible for all of our underachievment. Meanwhile their entire approach is dedicated to bypassing the organization of Minnesota’s teachers. That program is doomed to failure but it allows Pawlenty to hang his failures on a union, a tactic that is ultimately considered a success in his warped world of negative accomplishments.

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