Faced with accusations that its opposition cost Minnesota millions of dollars in education stimulus money, the state’s largest teachers union today launched a counter-offensive, calling on Gov. Tim Pawlenty to start working on a revised application for federal Race to the Top funding.
“We need to get started now in finding common ground and doing all we can to win the second time around,” said Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher. “Money is too scarce, and our children’s education is too precious to turn down any option.”
To that end, Dooher also announced proposed legislation he said would help address the achievement gap in Minnesota’s lowest-performing schools and help position the state to win funding in a second round of grants to be announced in June.
Pawlenty administration officials, however, have hinted that they might not reapply.
Legislators worry cost of mandates may outweigh funding
Separately, five lawmakers — four GOP representatives and one DFLer — have introduced legislation to take Minnesota out of the running for the stimulus money, which they say comes with mandates that ultimately could cost more than the $330 million the state had asked for.
In April, the U.S. Department of Education will formally notify Minnesota why the state is not among 15 finalists for a slice of the $4.35 billion in federal incentives to improve innovation in schools. Support from local districts, teacher unions and other stakeholders was said to count heavily in weighing the applications.
Although the state’s application likely failed to satisfy a number of the grant’s complex requirements, Education Minnesota’s decision not to join the bid is thought to be a major factor in Minnesota’s rejection.
Pawlenty was quick to blame the union earlier this month when news surfaced that Minnesota had been passed over. “It’s hard to race to the top with an anchor tied to your leg,” gubernatorial spokesman Brian McClung complained in a prepared 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,” McClung said. “If Minnesota is to have any chance of success in round two of this competition, the legislature must adopt these types of reforms immediately.”
Education Minnesota opposed some of the ways state officials proposed to meet the grant requirements, such as more closely tying teacher pay to student performance and creating alternate routes for licensing teachers. In January, Dooher sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan complaining that Pawlenty’s pay-for-performance plan, known as Q Comp, has not led to increased student achievement.
“Although Q Comp has partial state funding and some features that are appealing to teachers, fewer than one out of five school districts and charter schools have chosen to adopt the program voluntarily,” he wrote. “The Minnesota Legislature rejected Gov. Pawlenty’s efforts to expand Q Comp statewide and make it mandatory. Yet this unproven, unwanted program is the centerpiece of Minnesota’s Race to the Top plan.”
State teachers group against plan, but some locals backed it
Some local teachers unions had provisionally endorsed Minnesota’s grant application, reasoning that they could always back out if the state’s mechanisms for meeting federal requirements could not be finessed at the Legislature this spring.
In order to qualify for Race to the Top funding, states had to show they were prepared to track individual students’ performance and use the sophisticated data to improve teaching. Districts needed to be prepared to take radical steps to turn around schools deemed persistent underperformers. States also were required to lift any cap on the number of charter schools, a move that did not affect Minnesota.
In its application, Minnesota outlined a number of reforms already under way, as well as several prospective policy changes long sought by Pawlenty. In addition to the expansion of the controversial Q Comp, the governor has called for an end to teacher tenure and other union protections long considered sacrosanct.
Dooher today said Pawlenty and state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren wanted to use “gimmicks” to meet the grant’s requirements. “They’re not research-based, and they don’t help close the achievement gap,” he said. “They’re blaming the teacher.”
State officials could have worked with unions to find ways to meet the grant’s requirements, Dooher charged today. “They simply did not listen to our ideas,” he said. “They pushed forward without us.”
For example, struggling schools should be “turned around” at the local level, and not by state intervention, he said. Class sizes should be reduced to no more than 18 students and schools should be helped to provide “wrap-around” social services to families. Test scores should be used to professional improvement, not teacher evaluation, and longer school days and longer academic years might be needed in some schools.
Dooher said Education Minnesota’s proposals to reduce the achievement gap are contained in a bill that Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, is expected to introduce this week in the state House. Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, is sponsoring a Senate version. He did not say how the class-size reduction and other initiatives in the bill would be underwritten. The Legislature this year is trying to keep basic education funding intact in the face of a $1.2 billion budget shortfall.
The fiscal crisis makes it all the more important to reapply for Race to the Top money, and this time with a unified front, said Dooher. “I think we have to have some pretty honest and blunt conversations about what’s proven and what works,” he said. “What we want to do is make sure the resources are there.”
Beth Hawkins writes about education and other topics.