Key state lawmakers and teachers union leaders are pledging to work together on a second application for a federal "Race to the Top" education grant.
They started the process Tuesday during a joint House-Senate committee hearing on a package of proposed school reforms aimed at strengthening that application.
Minnesota's first-round failure to win a competitive grant prompted plenty of finger-pointing, as well as calls for bolder changes in state education policy.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has blamed the state teachers union, Education Minnesota, for standing in the way of reforms he says are essential. The Republican governor wants teacher pay linked more closely to student performance, a rating system for teacher effectiveness, alternative teacher licensing and an end to the current form of tenure.
Pawlenty's Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said Minnesota has to make up a lot of ground to compete in round two.
"My message is that we can't be milquetoast. We have to really not be afraid to take this as far as we can in Minnesota," said Seagren. "We've got the power, the will and the examples to do this. But I think we have to be very honest, that we are going to have to have a lot of points to be competitive."
Minnesota could win up to $175 million over four years under the Race to the Top program. The round two application is due by June 1.
Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, chair of the House K-12 Education Finance Division, said that application needs to balance the governor's desire for boldness with the union's willingness to change. Greiling said the points gained from changing state policy could be lost without teacher support.
"The main way to win no matter what, is if we come together on behalf of what is really good for our students," said Greiling. "Closing the achievement gap, having all students have good teachers and succeed, and use research -- not just whims of whatever anyone is asking us to do, including the federal government, that none of us think have all of the answers in the world for everything."
Greiling is counting on the teachers union, as well as the governor, to show some willingness to compromise. So far, the union isn't making any commitments.
Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher told legislators they should focus on creating a classroom environment where students succeed and the achievement gap narrows.
"We also have to distinguish between three things -- meaningful change that will get things better; harmful change that will set us back; and meaningless change that will make people feel good but not help students learn," Dooher said.
In an unusual move for a witness at a legislative hearing, Dooher was literally seated at the same table as legislators.
Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, said he's never seen a special interest group get such treatment. He called the seating arrangement awkward.
"It's either a very diplomatic effort by the Legislature to include a very powerful special interest group, or it's a less-than-subtle reminder that there is one political power here that has ultimate veto authority over these topics and this discussion," Michel said.
Tom Dooher said he had no idea where he would be sitting until he arrived at the meeting. He also denied that his organization has disproportionate influence on the debate.
Campaign finance reports show Education Minnesota spent roughly $860,000 on political activity in 2008. The union also ranks at or near the top in annual spending on lobbying at the State Capitol.