Minn. officials open to another Race to the Top run

School officials in Minnesota say they'd be interested in applying for federal education funding in the so-called 'Race to the Top' contest, if Congress approves more funding.

President Barack Obama's budget proposal Monday includes $900 million for a third round of the education incentive program. But unlike previous rounds, when only states could apply, this round would be opened only to individual school districts. Minnesota lost out on the money in the first round and didn't apply in the second.

"Obviously we haven't seen the details of the requirements, but if they're similar to the previous Race to the Top and it's open to districts, we'd certainly be open to exploring that option," said Michelle Walker, the chief accountability officer of the St. Paul district, the state's second-largest.

St. Paul teachers' union president Mary Cathryn Ricker said the district would be well-positioned to win funding because it has already implemented initiatives -- like a robust teacher evaluation system and alternative licensure -- that proved to be a barrier for a state application for Minnesota.

"I feel we're actually poised to actually do something with a district application because I feel half of the best ideas from Minnesota's application - we've already negotiated into our contract," Ricker said.

Race to the Top was first funded two years ago through the federal stimulus and used by the federal education department to use money during tight economic times to lure states to make administration-supported education reforms, including allowing more charter schools and removing bans on tying teacher evaluations to the performance of their students.

Federal education secretary Arne Duncan, who appeared with President Obama at a Maryland school during the budget unveiling, says 41 states made changes to their laws to make their applications more enticing.

Duncan later told reporters it would be preferable to award a potential third round of 'Race to the Top' only to districts, instead of states, because the funding has been scaled-down.

"While $900 million is a lot of money, theoretically you could only have one state or two potentially win if you're playing at that level," Duncan said. "We don't have multiple billions as we had in the original competition."

Duncan also acknowledged a districts-only approach could open the door to districts in states that had rejected the competition, as Minnesota did in the second round.

"Rather than trying to get a whole state to move, it might be more prudent to get select districts to move or districts that are ready to go," said Dennis Carlson, superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin district, the state's largest.

Carlson added he would consider applying for the funding especially now that his district recently won approval to join the state's teacher merit pay program, known as Q-Comp. Entrance into the program is still subject to a vote by district teachers.

Funding for a third round is anything but certain, though. The final decision rests with Congress. In fact, this is the second year President Obama has proposed another 'Race' round - last year's was never funded and U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., opposes the idea.

"I have had some questions about the implementation [of Race to the Top] and weighting of certain issues," Kline said during an event in January at a school in Lakeville, which he appeared at with Secretary Duncan.

Kline's words carry more weight, now that Republicans control the U.S. House -- he chairs the education committee that any such proposal would have to clear.

"It is time we asked why increasing the federal government's role in education has failed to improve student achievement," Kline said in a statement on Monday, after the president released his budget proposal.