In the past, when education financing came up in conversation local gophers might have mentioned the “Minnesota Miracle” – the 1971 bi-partisan effort to reform the state’s property-tax-based funding of public education. For over thirty years the effects of these reforms helped to reduce the disparity between localities with different property tax bases.
These days, education financing brings a different phrase to mind: “Race to the Top.” And in this case, Minnesota’s performance is far from miraculous. At a time when the state faces a $4.8 billion two-year deficit and K-12 and Higher Education expenses total 50.3% of total general fund expenditures, President Obama’s offer of $4.35 billion in competitive grants to states that have progressed and show promise to make improvements in four key areas is tempting, to say the least. The critical reform areas are:
- Adopting rigorous standards and assessments;
- Recruiting and retaining effective teachers;
- Turning around low-performing schools; and
- Establishing data systems to track student achievement and teacher effectiveness.
Delaware and Tennessee won the first round of The Race, taking home a combined $600 million for their reform plans. According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, "Both states have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools. They have written new laws to support their policies. And they have demonstrated the courage, capacity, and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students." Minnesota (along with 38 other states) fell short of the top spot by over 70 points, scoring just 375 out of the total 500 possible. Marks against the state’s plan included that it failed to demonstrate progress in closing the achievement gap, in equitably distributing effective teachers and principals, and that it lacked “alternative pathways for aspiring teachers and principals.”
Going in to the competition and following the release of the winners, Minnesota Department of Education and Governor Pawlenty complained that Education Minnesota – the statewide teachers union – was “dragging down the state” and keeping Minnesota from making reforms through the years. The lack of union support for the plan (just twelve percent signed on to the state application) led reviewers to question whether Minnesota educators shared a coherent vision and whether they had the “political will to dramatically improve schools.” However, as seen below, Education Commissioner Alice Seagren and Governor Pawlenty were not ready to admit defeat.
States may compete for a second round of Race to the Top funding by a June deadline. Pawlenty says Minnesota will only compete again if the state legislature enacts new laws and that Education Minnesota needs to “lighten up, loosen up its grip on the status quo.” Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher says Pawlenty’s “’take it or leave it’ ultimatum makes it clear he’s made a decision to not attempt a second application.” Who to believe? And what is it about the status quo that must be changed?
One point of disagreement is whether Q Comp, Pawlenty’s voluntary teacher performance pay system, should continue to be expanded throughout the state. Q Comp is currently funded by $169 in state aid and up to $91 in local funding per enrolled pupil. A Star Tribune investigation revealed over 99% of participating teachers received pay increases through the program during the most recent school year. Given the high cost and low accountability within the program, Education Minnesota would prefer the dollars be added to general school to reduce class sizes, increase resources, and update materials.
State lawmakers are currently moving to pass a set of reforms by May 1 to facilitate a more competitive application. New plans include alternative pathways to teacher licensure, strengthening teacher training, and enhancing the effectives of teaching evaluations. If the resulting legislation spurs a second Race to the Top application, if that application is successful, and if the resulting funding enables meaningful reforms for all meaningful students, perhaps we will have a second miracle in Minnesota. But then, miracles don’t often happen more than once…