Published Online: December 16, 2009

Minn. Bid for Part of Education Stimulus Hits Snag

Minnesota's pursuit of a slice of $4.3 billion in federal education money was complicated Wednesday by pressure from the statewide teachers union for the state to change its proposal in order to land its support.

Tom Dooher, president of the Education Minnesota union, said the state Department of Education's current draft proposal would result in "more bureaucracy, more top-down control from the state into our local school districts and more testing at the expense of great teaching."

States have until Jan. 19 to apply for "Race to The Top" funding that will be awarded to those that promote ways to recruit and keep effective teachers, track student performance and adopt plans for turning around failing schools. Minnesota stands to attract $175 million to $250 million if its proposal for school innovation is accepted, but stakeholder backing is among the factors considered.

The biggest flashpoint in Minnesota is how student achievement — mostly measured through test results — will be used in determining teacher pay and job security.

Minnesota already has a voluntary pay-for-performance program known as QComp that is in place in 76 districts and charter schools, covering a combined 30 percent of the student population in public schools.

A range of criteria is used to assess teachers, ranging from peer reviews to principal evaluations. Under the proposed application, officials would put more weight on student achievement. Only districts that agree to the tougher standards would be in line for money Minnesota gets; at least half of each state's award must flow through to school districts.

Minnesota Education Department spokesman Bill Walsh said the union's objections are better directed at federal officials, who are demanding more accountability.

"If they want the money, they are going to have to do the reform," Walsh said. "The plan can't get weakened to the point we lose our competitive advantage with other states. The Obama administration is going to pick 10 or 15 states based on the strength of their plan."

Citing competitive reasons, the state agency hasn't made its proposal broadly available to the public. It conducted a 10-city tour this fall seeking input on school changes that would help Minnesota qualify for more grant money.

Dooher said teachers and other school leaders will air their concerns in a meeting with Education Commissioner Alice Seagren planned for Thursday.

Dooher is offering alternatives that include using money to train teachers and principals on how to best use test data to meet student needs and building a recruitment program to lure better teachers to high-needs schools.

States expect to hear by April whether they'll receive grant money.

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