State won't reapply for ed money unless laws change

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, holds up a piece of paper outlining Minnesota's scores on its rejected application for federal "Race to the Top" money. The governor had just spoken to a group of education stakeholders about making changes in a second application for the money later this summer.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Governor Tim Pawlenty said Tuesday that Minnesota should only apply for federal education money if lawmakers change several state laws.

Pawlenty spoke at a meeting Tuesday morning to discuss the state's recent failed application for $330 million from the federal Race to the Top program.

Education leaders across Minnesota have been licking their wounds in recent weeks - first with news that they weren't getting Race to the Top money, then with the release of details explaining why.

Race to the Top has been the Obama administration's effort to force changes in education at the state level.

Pawlenty lauded the changes the Obama administration is pushing for - and said they're all likely to become the norm anyway.

"The only question in this room is going to be 'Do you want to get dragged there, or do you want to lead to that point?' I suggest we lead because this is going to happen. It will happen some time in the next 3-10 years," Pawlenty said.

Race to the Top is a competition. States compete for money by trying to show the federal education department that they're doing - or will do - the best job of reforming education.

In the first round, only Delaware and Tennessee got money.

Pawlenty says comparing the applications from those states with Minnesota's makes one thing clear: Minnesota must change several aspects of its education structure if it's to have any chance of winning. He even laid down an ultimatum: If lawmakers don't make the changes he wants, Minnesota won't even apply in round two.

"We are not going to give up; we want to make the attempt, said Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, during Tuesday's meeting. "But at the end of the day, if the political will and policy will is not there, then it's really fruitless for us to go forward."

Terri Bonoff, a DFL State Senator expressed doubts there'll be enough support to apply again.

"I don't know if the people in this room actually are willing to do what it takes to put together a successful application," Bonoff said.

Bonoff has offered one measure the governor supports that would offer more ways for non-traditional candidates like mid-career professionals to get licensed as teachers.

It's something the Obama administration is pushing for and an area of the Race to the Top application where Minnesota lost points.

The state's teachers union, Education Minnesota, opposes the measure. During today's meeting, lobbyist Jan Alswager said during that the bill waters down the high standards potential teachers should have to meet to assume the responsibility of teaching.

"Otherwise we're putting someone in the classroom that we do not believe has met the rigor or quality, Alswater said. "So I think all of us have the idea that we want quality people. It's a matter of talking it through and getting to that definition of quality."

Both sides say they're willing to try to come to agreement on issues like this, but no negotiations are scheduled.

The teacher licensure legislation is still in the Senate but House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said today there's no guarantee it will come up for a vote in her chamber. "I don't know that the governor's method of doing this is necessarily the best way of doing this," she added.

Discussions over the Race to the Top application come at a time of charged political atmosphere in the state and nationally.

Kelliher is a Democrat running for governor, and the teachers' union hasn't yet made an endorsement in that race.

Meanwhile, Pawelnty is a Republican governor who might run for president - and he's been supporting the Obama administration's education efforts, to chagrin of the very teachers union that supported Obama's presidential bid in 2008.

These realities weren't lost on those at this morning's meeting. Some questioned whether the politics hadn't already made a second application impossible.

"If the consensus in the room is that the changes we would need to make are so extreme that we just can't pull it off, then we shouldn't do it. I hope that's not where we end up," said Peter Hutchinson, president of the Bush Foundation, which plans to spend $40 million on an effort to better prepare colleges that teach future teachers.

Minnesota's first failed application sought $330 million. If the state applies a second time, the it will be limited to only asking for $175 million.

But even with that cap, the message Tuesday from the state's education community was that it is worth it to at least try to find the consensus needed to make a second bid a winner without ignoring the challenges ahead.