Minnesota’s Race to Top funding efforts are missing at least one key ingredient: enough political good will

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.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Gov. Tim Pawlenty

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.

Pam Costain
Pam Costain

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.

Mary Cathryn Ricker
Mary Cathryn Ricker

“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.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 04/06/2010 - 08:45 pm.

    An excellent and sensitive article.

    I’d encourage anyone with an interest in the subject to download the pdf from the link in the article. Even casual inspection indicates problem areas.

    Reluctantly, I’d say that trying to get an application in by June, given our situation, is a waste of time.

    I hope that we get a governor elected in the Fall who is willing to run with this. He or she will have to work with the legislature. It is going to take an engaged governor to make this fly.

    The teacher’s union is going to have to bend on alternative methods of licensure. Teaching is difficult and we should be willing to take good teachers no matter how they are produced.

    Clearly the imbalance in graduation rates between whites and minority students is a disgrace. We have to do something about this.

    Thanks to the state Department of Education for calling this necessary and valuable meeting.

  2. Submitted by Joe Musich on 04/07/2010 - 07:18 am.

    Is it ever good to chase money for monies sake ? It’s sort of putting the cart before the horse. What do we want our reform to be ? Is it getting rid of the teacher’s union ? Is it improving the desire to learn, to create life long learners, the ever curious and the ever engaged ? Improving test scores,creating opportunity, increasing the number of taxpayers. It’s easy to lump all of the desires, hopes and dreams of a society onto the backs of teachers and then stick them in the eye if it doesn’t happen. There are a myriad of factors at work in the social dynamic of why we educate. It’s time to get real about al of it and quite picking on the teachers. The entire social structure needs to be examined.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/07/2010 - 08:36 am.

    Let’s put things in their proper perspective.

    The Governor is on-board with the plans that one of the successful states, Tennessee, has in place. His position is that the wheel has been invented; other states have proved it works, so let’s get rolling.

    The application review makes it quite clear that Minnesota was primarily rejected because Education Minnesota is unwilling to make any meaningful changes to the status quo. God help us, they are still clinging to the belief that if they dig their heels in deep enough the cash will simply rain down upon them.

    Is it fair to say that the Governor isn’t making an effort to engage when the union continues to state, in no uncertain terms, that it is unwilling to consider anything that undermines its control over the public school system?

    Maybe, but I haven’t heard the argument that convinces me.

    Indeed, to convince those of us that have been fighting for the best interests of the public school student, it’s going to take quite the skilled orator to twist the history of the public systems past 40 years of continued failure into an argument against anything less than its wholesale reconstitution.

    In the mean time, unless and until there is a plan in place that includes a thoughtful, deliberate plan to improve the public school system’s academic performance, count me among those that believe Minnesota doesn’t deserve this infusion of federal cash.

  4. Submitted by Van Mueller on 04/07/2010 - 12:08 pm.

    Rather than chase the federal dollars in the Race to the Top the governor and legislature as well as educational interests and all citizens should redesign the state tax system and education funding system so that it is not necessary to borrow from the school districts and cut appropriations so that the state budget can be balanced. The financial problems in Minnesota have not been caused by Education Minnesota or the post-secondary institutions in Minnesota.. They and the students in Minnesota are the victims!

  5. Submitted by Endel Kallas on 04/07/2010 - 03:06 pm.

    Race To The Top calls for measurable results in dealing with issues like the achievement gap. This applies to students, teachers, administrators, schools, parents and communities alike. Initiatives to date have not met a reasonable bar for success. Perhaps we should agree to a results oriented, data driven, normative, continuous improvement, forward looking approach and focus on the ends rather than arguing about the means and the limitations of the past ?

    Statements like “We are disagreeing about what kind of preparation makes a teacher highly qualified.” concern me. Let the same high standard be applied to all who wish to apply. Put in place the best quality control we can for now, take on all initaitves and allow innovation to a chance to possibly work some wonders.

  6. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 04/07/2010 - 06:29 pm.

    Tom-

    The governor is not engaged. As the Minneapolis school board member said: “We don’t have a governor who is playing a convener role.”

    The governor has other fish to fry right now. Why don’t you just admit it? Your criticism of the faults of the union should include admission that the governor shares the blame for this impasse.

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