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State Holding Minnesota's Schools Hostage through "Race to the Top"

January 13, 2010 By John Fitzgerald

Today is the final day school districts can sign up for federal funds through the federal "Race to the Top" program. Despite unpalatable portions of the program, schools across Minnesota know that the state's financial chokehold on education is even more unpalatable and they are grasping at any straw available, no matter the consequences.

There are many angles to this complicated story, but the bottom line is this: Schools are being forced to accept programs against their better instincts only because the state has failed to fund them properly for the past 10 years.

Specifically, we're talking about Q-Comp, or Gov. Tim Pawlenty's so-called Quality Compensation program.  Q-comp links teacher pay with student performance on questionable standardized tests. The Governor has tied millions of potential Race to the Top funds only to schools that accept Q-Comp. You don't want Q-Comp? You don't get the federal money.

However, most Minnesota districts have rejected Q-Comp. After years of availability, only about 40 school districts and about 50 charter schools out of a combined 490 districts have signed up for the program. Most welcome Q-Comp's emphasis on collaboration, curriculum development and mentorship. They dislike its sledgehammer approach to revamping teacher compensation without providing a better way - or any way - of replacing the current system.

The current system rewards education and experience, and teachers have said they would welcome more input from master teachers and administrators in their reviews. Q-Comp and Race to the Top demand that student test scores become the prominent factor in pay determinations. Teachers rightfully point out that student test scores are affected by myriad considerations out of the teachers' control. Basing pay increases on test scores is ridiculous.

Race to the Top promoters don't care. The Minnesota Department of Education has bought into this arrogant attitude whole-heartedly, demanding that school districts either agree to Q-Comp by today or miss out on any Race to the Top funds.

Here's how Race to the Top works. President Obama sent more than $4 billion of the federal recovery package to the U.S. Department of Education for distribution. This is significant because the federal education department often creates policy and programs but rarely has any financial oomph behind them.

But this time it's different. The department came up with a complicated, 500-point scoring method and sent it out to the states, saying that the 10 or 15 states that best meet these criteria will get a slice of the $4 billion. Those that don't meet the criteria get nothing. Rare is the state that isn't strapped for cash, so this set off a scramble for states to meet these criteria. Best estimates put Minnesota's potential share at about $150 million, but many factors could change that figure.

Curiously, no one seemed to realize that states with the best education systems will be able to better meet these criteria, thus being better able to win the funds. Conversely, that means states with bad education systems that could use the money the most won't see any.

Like so many education proposals, some of Race to the Top's requirements are spot-on. Minnesota should have a data system that tracks students from pre-kindergarten through college no matter if they transfer schools or drop out then re-enter the system. Minnesota should reward master-level teachers that have truly exceeded their calling. Minnesota should participate in developing and implementing a common core of nationwide standards that allow students to be college ready and internationally competitive (as long as Minnesota can simultaneously develop standards that deviate from this common core if we feel it is in the best interests of our citizens).

But Minnesota should not place primary emphasis on student tests for teacher assessment. Minnesota should not force districts to accept Q-Comp. Minnesota should not allow easier access to alternative licensure, which will only weaken the state's teaching corps. Minnesota should not turn around low-performing schools by firing staff, closing the school or handing the school over to a charter sponsor or a for-profit company.

Some of the goals of Race to the Top are good, but the program as a whole is very flawed. Although we need the money desperately, Minnesota school districts might retain their souls if the state fails to get the grant. Instead, let's re-commit to investing the resources necessary so all students have an opportunity to succeed.


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