Some Minnesota educators breathing sigh of relief that state won’t try again for Race to the Top funds

With Minnesota deciding not to submit a new application for $175 million in federal education funding, school superintendents from New Ulm to Eveleth can refocus on the increasingly gut-wrenching task of trying to figure out how to keep the lights on without Race to the Top stimulus funds.

Yet even so, a few of them were probably exhaling after Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced this morning that the state will not try again for the coveted funding.

Like the public, they’ve already heard the familiar chorus of complaints echoed today and seen the finger-pointing that followed Minnesota’s failure to win a first-round grant:

• The governor blamed the Legislature for rejecting his education reform proposals and the state’s largest teachers union for general intransigence.

• Education Minnesota and DFL lawmakers blamed Pawlenty for putting forth ideologically extreme reforms.

In the current budgetary climate, no policymaker or school administrator can afford to turn down so much as the proceeds from the PTA bake sale.

Federal funding approach raises concerns
Privately, though, a number of Minnesota education-watchers have developed concerns about the strings attached to Race to the Top funding and what the grant process has taught them about the Obama administration’s approach to school funding and education reform.

In February, Obama released his fiscal 2011 budget proposal. At the time, all eyes were focused on the $4.3 billion federal competition, which was poorly understood by virtually all Minnesota education stakeholders. In late March, when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan released the Race judges’ comments on states’ applications, the fine print in the president’s plan for funding schools started to make sense.

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama

The bottom line: Educators had better get used to competing for cash, because Obama would put all new federal education funding into competitive grants, rather than into aid formulas.

Traditionally, the federal government has given education money to states based on formulas: The best example is the $14 billion Title I program. The aid is supposed to compensate for the higher cost of educating disadvantaged students; right now, it is distributed according to how many each state has.

Obama would prefer states be required to adopt “college- and career-ready standards” to qualify for the program. In fact, the administration wants to provide all new education dollars to states as competitive grants rather than according to traditional formulas.

And some old dollars, too: Obama and Duncan also want to consolidate some 38 smaller funding streams into one pot of money used to fund such initiatives as teacher and leader effectiveness and improving curriculum standards. States would have to compete for the money.

Policy shift mirrors Duncan’s Chicago reform tactics
The policy shift is based on school reform tactics used in Chicago when Duncan was CEO of the city’s school district from 2001 to 2008. Some, including Obama, credit the education secretary’s bold vision with turning around the city’s failing schools. Others say they have yet to see meaningful change.

Either way, it’s clear Duncan and Obama both like the carrot-and-stick approach used in Chicago: attach financial incentives to specific changes and force schools to compete for the money. Critics complain that one reason this approach is so appealing to the president is because he knows his education reforms are not popular on either side of the political aisle.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan
REUTERS/Larry Downing
Education Secretary Arne Duncan

On a practical level, the first, most obvious problem with this approach is that it puts poor states and smaller school districts at a disadvantage.

“Minneapolis and St. Paul have grant writers on staff,” explained Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. “I can tell you Balaton does not. Even places like St. Cloud could get nothing.”

Minnesota’s Race to the Top application was several hundred pages long, and its preparation required the use of outside consultants who were paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. According to a New York Times Sunday Magazine article online now, evaluation of the first round of applications was uneven.

Further, the shift will make it harder for school districts to plan — budgeting typically occurs in multi-year cycles — because they will not know whether they will get particular grants.

On top of that, administrators have questioned what will happen when Obama’s stimulus funding runs out in three years. Districts are supposed to create basic programs using the grants. So what happens when federal funding runs out? Most likely tax hikes, they fear.

Even before then, some say, the money may not be enough. Many of the reforms Obama wants to see, such as replacing mechanically scored standardized tests with assessments that use open responses, may cost more than the grants.

Lastly — but most problematic, when it comes to the actual business of teaching kids in classrooms — attaching funding requirements to a larger portion of school funding will hit districts where they are currently hurting most: unrestricted general funds.

An example: Schools have a legal obligation to provide special education services to any student that needs them, but only once has the U.S. government ever reimbursed states for more than 17 percent of the cost. (Current stimulus dollars have temporarily increased reimbursement to 34 percent.) The rest must be borne by local districts, which must either raise taxes or cut services overall.

According to Education Week, a number of Round 1 finalist states are so strapped for basic funding they have asked for waivers to a requirement that federal grant recipients maintain a certain level of state and local financing. Seven of the 14 states that have applied for at least one waiver were finalists, according to the publication. (Minnesota was not a finalist.)

“This means that as they are racing to the top, they cannot muster up enough cash to maintain K-12 or higher education funding levels from 2006 (that’s four years ago!),” EdWeek reported.

Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/19/2010 - 03:24 pm.

    Thank you T Paw for promoting “change and hope.”

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 05/19/2010 - 04:33 pm.

    Just as not all Minnesota teachers and administrators admire Pawlenty’s ideas, not all experts are fans of the Obama/Duncan plan for education “reform.” Like No Child Left Behind, their plan would probably would cost more than the feds provide to cover implementation and, like No Child, there is no proof that it is real reform or just an idea of reform that appeals to some people.

    A group of civic-minded Chicago business people did a study of the actual results in Chicago’s school system after Duncan did his thing (which, like No Child Left Behind, seems punitive rather than helpful). They found that rising test scores were sometimes achieved by lowering standards, for one thing, and found other things that didn’t inspire them with admiration. (I think I found this by searching “did Arne Duncan’s reforms work in Chicago?” or some such phrase.)

    The whole thing seems like a headlong rush to put the entire onus on teachers, to punish them and their schools and unions, to close schools and — in Detroit at least — to dissolve the local school board and replace as many schools as possible with privately owned and operated charters. There’s nothing wrong with charters, but they should not be used as a political weapon.

    I’d say Minnesota and all other states should be wary to the nth degree of both Obama/Duncan and Pawlenty.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/19/2010 - 07:44 pm.

    Education Minnesota is engaged in a disingenuous display of crocodile tears. Now that the legislature has safely left town, without addressing one of the major road blocks, alternative licensure, they are willing to work with the governor knowing that their actions while the legislature was in session in all likelihood made a successful application impossible.

    Race to the top doesn’t deliver much money and it comes with long and expensive tails. There are worse tragedies for our state than not being accepted into the program. But Education Minnesota, if it’s going to slow the decline of it’s influence with the legislature and with Minnesotans, has got to play it straight at least a little more often. We are not a state of fools.

  4. Submitted by scott gibson on 05/20/2010 - 06:57 am.

    Education Minnesota is being less duplicitous than our whining governor. This initiative was all about uncertain short-term funding with an aim at long-term weakening/eliminating of the union. It was not about improving schools. Pawlenty AND Obama both seem intent on starving schools until they will accept their vision of change. Minnesota has strong schools and effective professional teachers. I would put the vast majority of Minnesota’s students and teachers up in comparison with the same anywhere else.

  5. Submitted by Elizabeth Halvorson on 05/20/2010 - 12:16 pm.

    I know nothing about Chicago schools, nor do I know as much as I should about the most recent federal initiatives. That said, federal money has usually been intended to get programs started, not to maintain them, so current plans are apparently in keeping with history. Speaking, though, as a former teacher, I do know that you really can’t hold teachers and schools accountable for the “results” shown by shifting, highly mobile student populations. I also know that the only way to find out what a student knows is with open-ended questions, so if that’s what the Obama administration is trying to accomplish, then good for them. I suggest giving fewer, but more meaningful tests, and saving money that way. How not to disadvantage small school districts? Do you remember the Minnesota Miracle of the 1970s? Back then, the state recognized a need to equalize education opportunities across the state’s rich and poor districts by making districts independent of local property tax collections. A bipartisan legislature decided to shift most of the responsibility for funding schools over to the state, which would pay costs using state income tax revenues. Unfortunately “rich” districts got in a snit over “their” tax dollars going to help their poor neighbors, and full state funding never happened. Unfortunately, under Pawlenty, even that state funding has declined. I do believe, however, that full state funding from income tax revenues is the way to fund education—then there won’t be such a disparity. Finally, I’d like to address the point that smaller school districts don’t have grant writers. I suspect the Obama requirements may not pose a hardship for most states. Most states I’m familiar with have county-wide school districts, unlike Minnesota with it’s independent school districts every X-number of acres. So perhaps it’s time to reorganize school districts here—have fewer/bigger districts with less administrative overburden and a greater capability for meeting current needs and opportunities.

  6. Submitted by Fritz Dahmus on 05/20/2010 - 12:17 pm.

    At the risk of being simplistic….this “carrot on a stick” program is sound at a level of 30,000 feet. But it is too layered and cumbersome in its effort to achieve something very basic and uncomplicated….a good education. Try this “carrot on a stick” approach: make schools earn their students and the funding that goes along with it (the feds are welcome to make donations without any strings attached). Why can’t parents take their education dollars to whatever school they think will best serve their children’s educational needs? Furthermore, leave the formation of these various plans or models for delivering these educational needs to the professional: the teachers, administrators, and local school boards.

  7. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 05/20/2010 - 01:05 pm.

    I join with those superintendents who are glad we passed on this. Too many reforms coming from politicians and especially the business community focus on variables not related to student achievement. The Obama education policy has largely followed this failed model of trying to change the wrong variables. But to give them credit their next initiative -the Investing In Innovation (i3) grants will give millions to more local entities (not states) that have a track record of increasing achievement. The design of this grant is one that is highly aligned with improving student achievement. In a first they are putting all the grant applications on line. I would look to those to see if Minnesota will benefit.

  8. Submitted by Van Mueller on 05/20/2010 - 03:33 pm.

    Minnesota need not be dependent on either the Federal Government or Chicago -style educational reform. What is sorely lacking is coordinated leadership from the Minnesota Department of Education, organized groups of education professionals, higher education institutions, food government groups such as the Citizens League, Growth & Justice, Parents United, League of Women Voters, Minnesota Business Partnership etc. There are plenty of educational reform ideas. What is lacking is the leadership to harness the resources in Minnesota. There has been too much focus on T-Paw and Education Minnesota while ignoring the other available resources.
    Many States have chosen not to chase after Race to the Top but to focus on change designed to fit their States. Most of this is accomplished without the whinning and acrimony witnessed in Minnesota.

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