Minnesota Governor Pushes Incentive Cash for Districts, Teachers

By David J. Hoff — February 03, 2009 4 min read
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Even while facing an austere budget, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is calling on state lawmakers to fund his growing effort to change teacher compensation and to reward school districts that are successfully improving student achievement.

The second-term Republican is seeking to expand the 4-year-old “Q Comp” program, which creates career ladders and offers teacher bonuses for meeting specific goals, to all of the state’s 340 districts and 140 charter schools.

Mr. Pawlenty also wants to offer bonuses of up to 2 percent to districts that successfully improve student achievement on the state’s new federally approved growth model for accountability.

But a prominent Democrat and the leader of the state’s largest teachers union are criticizing the plan, saying Mr. Pawlenty is highlighting his pet projects while cutting elsewhere.

“It gives him the chance to focus people’s attention on his agenda and distracts them from cuts in higher education and other places in the budget,” said Steve Kelley, a Democrat who was a state senator from 1997 to 2006 and was active on education issues.

“He is not addressing the real needs of schools,” said Thomas A. Dooher, the president of Education Minnesota, the statewide union representing the 200,000 members of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “We have to have equitable funding for schools. This is going to help school districts that are doing well.”

Bonus Budget

Mr. Pawlenty outlined his proposals in his Jan. 15 State of the State address.

“Even at a time like this, we need to increase funding for K-12 schools,” the governor told lawmakers at that time. “In exchange, we must expect more. My budget will include dramatic reforms and improvements to our K-12 system.”

Mr. Pawlenty followed up Jan. 27 with a proposal to spend $14.1 billion for K-12 education in the biennial budget covering fiscal years 2010 and 2011, a 2 percent increase over the previous two years.

His overall $33.6 billion biennial budget proposal for the state would be a 2.2 percent reduction from the current two-year budget cycle, which ends June 30. The proposal assumes that the state would receive $920 million from the federal fiscal stimulus bill. The House passed a version of the bill last week. (“Education Aid in Stimulus Raises Eyebrows,” this issue.)

Almost all of the education funding increase would be dedicated to two projects that would provide different types of bonuses: a change in the way teachers are compensated through the existing Q Comp program, and a new program to reward districts where student achievement increases.

Under Q Comp, 44 districts and 26 charter schools receive additional per-pupil funding to give extra compensation to teachers based on the improvement of their professional skills and their students’ test scores.

Districts may use a variety of criteria to provide teachers with extra compensation. Some plans mix several criteria, ranging from schoolwide bonuses for improving student achievement to individual bonuses for doing so.

Mr. Pawlenty’s budget would set aside $233 million over the next two years to provide enough money to make the program mandatory across districts and charter schools. Each district and charter school would also receive an extra $300 per pupil—about a 5 percent increase, according to Mr. Pawlenty’s budget proposal.

Making Q Comp mandatory and linking a funding increase to that requirement is unfair, according to Mr. Dooher, the president of the teachers’ union. In the four years since the program started, he noted, only 44 districts of the 340 in the state have volunteered to join it.

“If it is that great of an idea, more people would have jumped into it,” he said. “When you make it mandatory, you’re going against what research shows us”—that imposing new compensation systems isn’t successful.

School officials also are wary about making the program a statewide mandate. In past years, Mr. Pawlenty has had to compromise with Democrats in the legislature about his plans to expand Q Comp, said Greg Abbott, a spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association.

“As long as it’s fully funded, we’d be OK with it,” Mr. Abbott said.

‘Pay for Progress’

In proposing the “Pay for Progress” program, Mr. Pawlenty would appropriate $100 million over the next two years to reward districts that increase students’ test scores.

“Our school finance system sends money to schools whether they’re doing a good job or not,” Mr. Pawlenty said in his Jan. 15 speech. “This isn’t how the world works anymore, and it’s not in the best interests of student learning or greater accountability.”

Under Minnesota’s new growth model, the state calculates whether students’ test scores are growing in two achievement levels: those above “proficient” and those below it. In each level, the growth model determines the percentage of student who are making “low,” “medium,” or “high” growth from one year to the next.

Last month, then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings approved Minnesota’s request to use the growth model to determine whether schools and districts are making adequate yearly progress under the 7-year-old No Child Left Behind Act.

In his proposal, Mr. Pawlenty did not explain how much growth a district would need to make to qualify for the 2 percent increase in per-pupil funding available under “Pay for Progress.”

Mr. Kelley, the former state senator, said the plan would put too much emphasis on increasing test scores.

“It puts all of the educational focus on one standardized test in math and reading,” said Mr. Kelley, director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “It has the effect of driving resources away from other parts of the curriculum.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as Minnesota Governor Pushes Incentive Cash for Districts, Teachers


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