Hundreds of MN schools vie for "Race to the Top" money

Three-hundred school districts and more than 100 charter schools across Minnesota have signed on to a bid by the state to win federal stimulus dollars.

Minnesota will find out in April if it has won $330 million in federal stimulus money for schools.

State officials are optimistic Minnesota will receive funding from the Obama Administration, which will use a point system to determine who gets Race to the Top money. One way for states to receive more points is to show that they have a lot of support from local stakeholders back home.

That's why state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren was pleased to reveal Wednesday how wrong her initial estimates were. Seagren said she guessed the department might get enough districts to sign on to represent 60 percent of students in Minnesota.

As it turned out, she said, about 93 percent of Minnesota's children are represented in the state's Race to the Top application.

"That's extraordinary," Seagren said. "We think probably we're going to be in the top five or 10 states in the nation that have this much participation."

"We think probably we're going to be in the top five or 10 states in the nation that have this much participation."

The 300 school districts and 116 charter schools that signed on have both signaled support for the effort and pledged to make certain changes, if Minnesota gets the money.

The state's teachers union, Education Minnesota, has criticized the application on the grounds that it is short on details and uses money to force districts to do things they otherwise might not.

For one, the application requires districts to agree to the state's merit pay program Q-Comp, a voluntary program. Union president Tom Dooher said the program seems mandatory as districts would have two years to add Q-Comp or lose their remaining Race to the Top money.

"It's a mandate that one size is going to fit all, and we don't believe that's going to help either our locals or our kids," Dooher said. "So we want to make sure things are locally negotiated and they fit the needs of that district."

Dooher also said it's misleading to label all those districts as completely behind the effort. Although 300 school superintendents might have joined Race to the Top, the union's own count found that just 36 of those districts also saw their local unions sign on.

But state officials say programs like Q-Comp are exactly the kind of reforms the federal government is looking for in applications. They said other states that don't have such programs in place are at a disadvantage.

Scott Croonquist, a lobbyist for Twin Cities-area school districts, said some were wary of the commitments at first. But in the end, every district he represents signed on.

"There's more and more talk out of Washington that Race to the Top is probably the template for what we'll see when they re-authorize the No Child Left Behind Act," Croonquist said. "And so this isn't just a one-time grant deal. This is probably the long-term trend line of where the federal and state governments want to go. And so if this is the way we're going to go anyway, why wait?"

Another facet of Minnesota's application is that only those districts who signed onto Race to the Top will receive money if the state wins. With state budgets so bad, this could be the last new money that districts will have a shot at for some time.

So while the fervor of commitment might vary, some districts might have agreed to participate to be eligible just in case. Districts can opt out later if they find the commitments too burdensome.

The few dozen districts who didn't join the effort, will not be able to join later.

That's fine with Beth Schwarz, superintendent of the Cook County School District in Grand Marais. She said the application didn't seem to fit her unique, rural district.

"It was really unclear whether ... there would be a financial benefit to our district," Schwarz said.

For example, Schwarz notes her small district would have to spend a lot of money on travel reimbursement to send people to various meetings all over Minnesota. She couldn't find anything in Race to the Top that addresses that added cost.

States that don't win Race to the Top money in April will have a chance to apply for a second round of the funds later this summer.

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