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Federal School Money Not Worth the Acrobatics

January 06, 2010 By John Fitzgerald

Minnesota should put a stop to its application for the federal government's Race to the Top program. Several aspects of the plan are quite troubling and the immediacy of the application doesn't allow for proper consideration.

Conversations with education leaders across the state reveals cautious - very cautious - consideration of Race to the Top. Most educators don't want to be left out of the possibility of more money for students, but they also have serious qualms about the program's requirements.

Race to the Top is a federal program in which money is short-lived and will require school districts to opt in to controversial programs that may or may not be beneficial to students. Most egregious, school districts have to make up their minds by Jan. 13 or their students won't get any money even if Minnesota is awarded cash through the program.

The steel handcuff reform offered by the federal No Child Left Behind law is acknowledged throughout the nation as a failure. It requires school districts to meet impossible goals and punishes them if they fail. Race to the Top is a velvet handcuff program. It offers millions of dollars - maybe hundreds of millions of dollars - to entice schools to toe the line on questionable "reforms."

Reforming our schools to correct the achievement gap, stall the dropout rate, improve the performance of English language learners, provide for better early education and create a seamless transition to higher education are necessary and admirable goals. However, the fashion in which Race to the Top is being administered in Minnesota is as subtle as a carjacking.

The U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top program will award up to $4.3 billion in grants to eligible states. The awards will be given in two rounds, the first in April 2010 and the next later in the year. Minnesota's Department of Education estimates the state could see $175 million in grant money. Half the money will go to eligible school districts depending on how many poor students are enrolled.

About 15 percent goes to MDE to administer the programs. The rest is divvied out by MDE to eligible school districts to provide the programs.

The grants will be awarded based on how many points a state earns on a rubric developed by the federal government. It requires states to show what it has done and what it will do to improve student testing, student data tracking, teacher improvement and improving schools with low-achieving students.

One of the troubles with the grant process is its immediacy. To qualify for the April grants, states must have their applications to Washington D.C. by Jan. 19. State officials are requiring superintendents to sign a Memorandum of Agreement by Jan 13. That gives school boards, administrators and teachers only a few weeks to understand a very complicated set of criteria. Also, although the federal government allows a 30-day grace period for school districts to sign the memorandum, Minnesota wants them all signed by Jan. 13. Those school districts not on board with Race to the Top at that time won't see any money.

One of the key components to the project is Q-Comp, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's test performance-based teacher pay plan. Rolled out in 2005, Q-Comp has been approved by 44 of 341 school districts. It offers districts cash to provide teacher mentoring and training if they agree to do away with traditional pay schedules in favor of pay based on "performance." Unfortunately, no one has devised a suitable way to judge teacher merit, making Q-Comp more a tool of political will than real teacher improvement.

Yet both the federal and state governments have made Q-Comp an integral part of Minnesota's Race to the Top application. In fact, unless school districts agree to implement Q-Comp by 2012, they won't receive one dime of Race to the Top money. That leaves districts with just several weeks to decide if they want to join a program they didn't want to join for the last four years. Some districts say they can sign the Memorandum of Agreement, then either negotiate Q-Comp into the teacher's union contract by 2012 or quit their participation in Race to the Top, but one interpretation of federal guidelines would require districts to give back all Race to the Top funds if they make such a move.

Such is the makeup of the Race to the Top application: Hurry up to do things you don't especially want to do so you can get money the state & federal government should have been providing all along. Since the state takeover of school funding from property taxes in 2003, state investment to schools has dropped an inflation-adjusted 13 percent. Race to the Top funds will be the first significant influx of federal dollars since that time, but the program will sunset in four years, leaving states to either continue Race to the Top programs or discontinue funding them. The Department of Education has treated Race to the Top as an Executive Branch program, leaving lawmakers out of the loop. Lawmakers should be very wary of any program that is going to require them to find tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars four years from now.

Perhaps one of the most mysterious aspects of this proposal is the creation of a new Office of Turnaround Schools, staffed by appointed officials answerable only to the Commissioner of Education.  This office will oversee the change in management of schools that have lower-performing students and either change staff, close the school or turn the school over to a charter school or a for-profit education organization.

This proposal ignores the complexity of students in these schools. In many cases, the students don't need different staff, they need more staff that is better able to cope with their needs. They need smaller class sizes, better facilities, better training for teachers and a copious amount of professionals to see to their mental, physical and social needs.

There are other questions about Race to the Top, just as there are many things to recommend about the proposal. But administrators and teachers shouldn't be forced to agree to this plan without a thorough vetting, and lawmakers who will ultimately have to foot the bill for these programs should have greater input.

There is an analogy that seems appropriate here. Earlier this century, many people bought homes they couldn't afford using mortgages that weren't constructed in their best interests. They trusted that everything would work out for the best. That didn't happen and now many people face bankruptcy and foreclosure.

Minnesota's education system has been financially strangled since 2003. It cannot withstand any more contraction, yet a state budget deficit in the billions makes Race to the Top money seem very, very enticing.

We must remember at all times that we work for the students, not the system. If a new program promises great things but actually makes education more difficult, or backs us into a corner, then we must avoid that program.

The time is not right for Race to the Top. Minnesota should halt its application at least until the second round of grants later this year.


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