It would be easy to write off Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proclamation this morning that he isn’t sure Minnesota should submit a second application for federal Race to the Top funding as political grandstanding.
Easy, except that a number of the education community members at today’s public debriefing agreed with the governor’s remarks, if only with the assertion that there isn’t enough political good will to draft a winning proposal.
The state Department of Education called the meeting to analyze why Minnesota’s first application for the federal grants fell short and whether, given the feedback the state received about its bid from the Obama Administration, it’s worthwhile to reapply.
Minnesota lost its first bid in large part because Pawlenty and the leaders of the state’s largest teacher’s union disagreed about key reforms Race to the Top is meant to fund. The judges who reviewed all of the applications for the competitive grants repeatedly said they feared that disagreement among Minnesota’s education stakeholders made any real progress impossible.
Unless the politicians and Education Minnesota can quickly find common ground on such thorny topics as linking teacher pay to student performance, creating alternate paths to teacher certification, and putting more highly effective teachers into struggling schools, a second application probably won’t succeed, attendees said.
“We don’t have a governor who is playing a convener role, and Education Minnesota is holding us back,” said Minneapolis School Board member Pam Costain. “I’m concerned about both of those dynamics.”
“Most of us who are between those two poles feel very helpless,” she added.
After opening remarks by Pawlenty and Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, Education Department officials walked the audience through a PowerPoint presentation (PDF) comparing Minnesota’s grant application with those of the two winning states, Delaware and Tennessee, and laying out each state’s scores on each part of the proposal.
Participants then broke into small groups and talked about the feasibility of a second application.
When they compared notes at the end, Costain said, there was a clear consensus: There are a few areas, such as showing progress on closing the achievement gap, where there’s nothing Minnesota can do immediately to increase the state’s odds in a second round.
There’s plenty that the Legislature and Education Minnesota could do, but not much time for the kinds of delicate negotiations that might help ease the two sides toward common ground.
Minnesota only has until June 1 to craft a new application, which might give the Legislature enough time to pass the laws Obama wants to see in place. But it’s hardly enough to get the governor and Education Minnesota on the same page, Costain said.
“This has to happen somewhere other than public meetings,” she said. “Some skilled mediators need to step in.”
Others agreed about the tenor but saw more potential middle ground.
“There was a frenetic all-or-nothing feeling among some people,” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, head of St. Paul’s teachers union. There’s enough room in the application for initiatives that allow compromise, she said.
“We all want highly qualified teachers working with our students,” Ricker said. “We are disagreeing about what kind of preparation makes a teacher highly qualified.”
The most compelling moment of the day came when representatives of minority groups working to close the achievement gap talked about what the $330 million Minnesota had sought would have meant to disadvantaged students.
“There were extremely emotional and urgent pleas from the African-Americans and Latinos in the room that it’s time to quit pointing fingers and get going,” said Costain. “It’s sad because I think we understand in Minneapolis the urgency.”
Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.