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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.