Minn. passed by in first round of "race to the top" school funding

Mrs. Churchill's class
Third graders sit in a circle at the front of Karene Churchill's classroom for a reading lesson in 2009 in Herman, Minn.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

The U.S. Education Department named 15 states and the District of Columbia as finalists Thursday in the so-called "Race to the Top" competition, and Minnesota is not among the finalists.

That means schools here will not get the $330 million they applied for -- at least not yet. Minnesota can re-apply for a second round of funding later this year.

Under the "Race to the Top" competition, the winning states will be those the U.S. Education Department feels will best meet guidelines it wants implemented.

Most federal money is doled out to every state through formulas. Race to the Top has been the most publicized effort by the Obama administration to make more federal education funding competitive.

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters in a conference call Thursday that missing out on this round of funding doesn't mean future efforts to win competitive grants are doomed.

"This is a chance for every state to continue to learn and grow," said Duncan. "We fully expect Minnesota and other states to come back in round two and give it their best shot. There are multiple opportunities for states to step up in these competitions."

No money has been awarded yet -- 15 states and the District of Columbia were named finalists. Even so, Duncan warned most of them will also end up empty-handed, like Minnesota.

Duncan also refused to offer specifics on why any one state did or did not make the cut. Those details will be released next month.

The absence of details didn't stop criticism from flowing.

"It's hard to race to the top with an anchor tied to your leg," Gov. Pawlenty's spokesman Brian McClung said, referring to the state's teachers union, Education Minnesota -- which is a frequent target of the governor's criticism.

The union refused to sign on to the state's application.

"Many of these other states that were successful have alternative licensure, they have tenure reform, they have more flexible ability to improve their schools," said McClung. "We're disappointed that the union has fought against any type of meaningful reform for years."

More than 300 Minnesota school districts signed on to the state's application, promising to make changes if the state won. One change was to implement Q-Comp, the state's teacher merit pay program, which is currently voluntary.

That was one reason Education Minnesota opposed the application. Union president Tom Dooher also considered the application a back-door way of getting schools to implement proposals that the governor hasn't been able to get passed at the Capitol.

"We wanted to work with them; we had ideas of our own that we knew were research-based and really would help kids," said Dooher. "I will take any criticism we get from any source on why we didn't sign on, because we know practitioners have the best answers, not bureaucrats in St. Paul or Washington, D.C."

For districts that promised to add Q-Comp as part of the application, they're no longer required to do that. Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson says he'll still pursue it for his district. He says the Race to the Top news stung.

If state funding stays flat or the next three years, Carlson predicts he'll have to cut $30 million more to keep his district's budget balanced.

Carlson admits he's about to drastically slash "instructional support," which funds things like teacher training programs and extra non-teacher staff to help with the workload.

"I saw Race to the Top as one of the few ways we could keep instructional support, to assure our school board and public that we're getting where we need to get with results. That was very disappointing," said Carlson.

Most education officials said they expect Minnesota will re-apply in the second round of Race to the Top, though the governor's spokesman said they'll wait to see if lawmakers pass any education reforms before deciding.

On the Net: U.S. Dept of Education's announcement