Minnesota tripped in the first leg of Race to the Top, a competitive federal education grant, but now policy makers are dusting themselves off and preparing for a second bid.
Education officials learned last month that their application earned 375 out of 500 possible points, coming in at 20 of 41 states applying.
Missing out on federal money to stimulate education reform and turn around chronically low-performing schools was a blow, but it’s also a reality check —giving the state a second chance not only to make a bolder application but to have a fuller discussion about reform, say lawmakers.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he won’t sign a second Race to the Top application unless the Legislature passes reforms that will satisfy grant criteria. He’s pushing Minnesota to keep up with the Joneses — or rather, the Tennessees and Delawares — the only two of 16 applicants making the first cut to win a combined $600 million.
“Other states across the country are literally racing to pass these education reforms,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) at an April 19 press conference. “Places like Delaware and Tennessee are getting in their Maseratis or their Corvettes,” while “some establishment figures in Minnesota are arguing about who’s going to drive our ’78 Pinto.”
Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville), chairwoman of the House K-12 Education Finance Division, is “optimistic” a second application can succeed if all players collaborate this time. Minnesota would be eligible for between $60 million and $175 million over four years.
Lawmakers moved further down the reform highway at a joint House and Senate education committee meeting April 20 attended by Education Commissioner Alice Seagren and Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher. The governor’s reform proposals were presented, and experts discussed key topics the Legislature has been working on, including alternative teacher licensure, use of data to evaluate teachers and the role of “highly effective” teachers in student success.
“The main way to win, no matter what, is if we come together on behalf of what is really good for our students … and use research and not just whims of whatever anyone is asking us to do, including the federal government,” Greiling said.
To recap the first round: Evaluators who reviewed Minnesota’s 250-page application awarded high marks for strong charter school laws, high academic standards and high-quality assessments and a commitment to funding education, but they deducted points for lack of teacher union support. Only 12 percent of union locals endorsed the application. Reviewers liked certain ideas such as expanding Q Comp, the state’s voluntary teacher evaluation and merit pay plan, and creating an Office of Turnaround Schools, but said the state didn’t have a solid plan to carry them out.
Greiling, House K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee Chairman Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), Senate members, Dooher and Seagren met April 21 with representatives from the federal education department and Tennessee and Delaware officials.
Afterward, Greiling felt hopeful about a second application, and was advised to stick to what the state is already doing, but simplify the application and add a clear timeline for carrying plans out. One thing the winners had in common was that their governors personally worked with union leaders on the proposal, she said, so the unions supported new accountability measures, similar to Pawlenty’s, because “it’s not done to them but rather with them.”
Seagren would have to submit a letter of intent to apply by May 4.
Effective teachers key to reform
How to recruit, train and retain high-quality teachers — and dismiss those who don’t measure up — could not only help win the grant, but help close the achievement gap between white students and students of color in performance on standardized tests.
“The heart and soul of this is putting the most effective teacher in the classroom,” Seagren said. The governor has offered a proposal for alternative teacher licensure pathways for nontraditional candidates; defining an “effective” teacher; counting test scores in teacher evaluations and tenure decisions; and has a five-year tenure renewal requirement.
Alternative licensure helps fill high-need licensure areas such as bilingual education, said Pat Pratt-Cook, Minneapolis Public Schools head of accountability and human resources.
“Most studies nationally show little connection between teacher effectiveness and their route to certification,” Pratt-Cook said.
However, Education Minnesota, the teacher’s union, traditionally resists such accountability measures, which could change the standard of lifetime tenure most teachers have. But research indicates that students who have effective teachers progress three times faster than those with less effective teachers, according to Bush Foundation Vice President and Educational Achievement Team Leader Susan Heegaard.
“We have a historic opportunity before us,” Heegaard said, to deliver as many as 25,000 highly effective teachers to replace that many who will retire within the next decade. The foundation has committed $40 million over 10 years to strengthen teacher training and ongoing support for new teachers, in partnership with 14 higher education institutions in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota that will guarantee their graduates are effective.
“Our goal is to improve student readiness for college and close the achievement gap,” Heegaard said.
Mariani said the original application didn’t adequately address Minnesota’s “disgraceful achievement gap,” which Greiling said is second-worst in the nation only above the District of Columbia.
Evaluators awarded just 15 of 30 points for showing “significant progress in raising achievement and closing gaps,” and 10 of 25 points for “improving student outcomes.”
Two emerging “turnaround” strategies proving effective could strengthen the application, suggested Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. One is extended time programs, such as summer school, which he said has worked well in Baltimore schools.
Another is “community schools,” which partner with other organizations to offer wraparound services such as health care, enrichment programs and social services within a school building.
Brooklyn Center leases space in its school building to Community Action Partnership of Suburban Hennepin which provides health and social service resources to students and families. That’s helping to engage parents and alleviate health problems that distract students, according to Superintendent Keith Lester. He said graduation rates are now over 80 percent from a low around 40 percent and attendance is up.
“Our partnerships are saving us money. They needed our space and we needed their services,” he added.
Other advocates want to make sure any reforms adopted are right for Minnesota.
For example, the grant requires states to adopt common core standards in math and language, said Mary Cecconi, president of Parents United for Public Schools. She said that the standards are still in draft form and are widely considered to be less rigorous than Minnesota’s, so it would be premature to approve them.
Bills moving through the legislative process may boost a second application. Mariani sponsors HF3163 that would strengthen teacher preparation programs and use longitudinal data to track teacher performance, and HF3093 that would create pathways to licensure for non-traditional teacher candidates. The former awaits action by the House K-12 Education Finance Division; the latter was passed 79-47 by the House April 12 and awaits Senate action. The proposals are also in SF2757, sponsored by Sen. Terri Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka). It awaits action by the Senate E-12 Education Budget and Policy Division.
New rule about who sits at the table
Every seat at the committee table was taken during a standing-room-only joint meeting of House and Senate education committees April 20 to discuss a second Race to the Top application for a federal grant.
Some committee members were unable to find seats at the table, while Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher and Education Commissioner Alice Seagren were seated alongside House K-12 Education Finance Division Chairwoman Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville) and Senate Education Committee Chairman LeRoy Stumpf (DFL-Plummer).
This seating arrangement at the committee table drew criticism and resulted in a new House rule after the issue was brought up on the House floor April 21.
Republican members said Dooher, head of the state teachers union, didn’t belong there, and that it sent the wrong message about the integrity of the legislative process.
“To have a member of the lobbying community at the table, I think was inappropriate,” Rep. Randy Demmer (R-Hayfield) said, “especially when elected officials don’t have a place at the table.”
“What happened yesterday was an embarrassment to the body,” added Rep. Mark Buesgens (R-Jordan). “I hope there is an apology from the other side of the aisle.”
Although Greiling had introduced the meeting as “unofficial,” Buesgens said it had all the appearance of an official hearing.
Greiling said having the commissioner and union president at the table symbolized that all parties are working “figuratively and literally shoulder to shoulder” on a new application.
Buesgens and Demmer serve on the education finance division, and Demmer is also a member of the House K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee.
The controversy culminated in a new permanent House rule proposed by Rep. Marty Seifert (R-Marshall) to prohibit representatives from registered lobbying groups from sitting at committee tables during official committee proceedings. It incorporated an oral amendment by Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Mpls) to also prohibit members or staff of the executive branch from being seated. It was approved 128-2.
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