Race To Top Is Slow

The Legislature is missing a deadline to pass education reform, jeopardizing Minnesota’s efforts to receive federal education money.

Legislators will blow past a Saturday Pawlenty administration deadline, and any resolution appears more than a week away.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said the reforms needed to pass by Saturday to give them enough time to write a detailed grant proposal and win the backing backing of school leaders.

A House committee passed a bill with some reforms Wednesday night, but it falls short of what the Pawlenty administration wants and the Legislature is in recess until Monday for the Republican state convention.

Among Pawlenty’s proposals are ones to make sure teachers are competent, require teachers and principals get paid in part based on how well students perform and provide mid-career Minnesotans an easier pathway to become teachers. If lawmakers fall short of his requirements, Pawlenty said, he will not file the application for federal funds.

Minnesota could receive up to $175 million in extra federal money from the Race to the Top program, which rewards education reform and innovation. An earlier Minnesota application failed because the state has not done enough to reform education and because the application lacked sufficient support by state education organizations.

The new grant application is due June 1, and Seagren said a month is needed to prepare.

"The deadline has not been met," Seagren said. "If we get to almost the end of (the legislative) session, there is just no way we can do this."

The Legislature must adjourn by May 17.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, leads a House education finance committee that Wednesday night passed 14-5 an education bill containing reform provisions that fall short of what Pawlenty and Seagren say is needed to win the federal money.

One aspect that is short of the administration’s wishes is providing professionals easier ways to become teachers. The original bill contained some of those provisions, but Seagren and Greiling said an amendment passed Wednesday weakened them.

"I think in the end we will end up with something," Greiling said about finding a way for professionals to get teacher licenses.

Even after Greiling’s committee passed the bill, the measure faces further debate in three more committees before reaching the House floor.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, Senate education budget committee chairman, said his committee will discuss education reform next week.

Greiling said she thinks lawmakers could be working on a final deal in conference committee by the end of next week. Seagren could begin writing a draft for the grant while lawmakers are working out reform details, Greiling said.

Stumpf and Greiling said the House and Senate are trying to agree on as much as possible before passing the bills to shorten the time a conference committee would require.

Still, Stumpf acknowledged the burden facing Seagren and her staff.

"I would not want to be in her shoes," he said. "I recognize that the commissioner has an enormous job in front of her."

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the administration is working with legislators "to ensure that helpful reforms will be included in the final version of the education bill. … We are hopeful DFLers will work with us to pass significant reforms that will help our students and improve our potential Race to the Top application."

Seagren said she was glad to see movement but is not convinced the Democratic-controlled Legislature is going far enough to convince the Obama administration to grant Minnesota funds.

"I think we need to go further," Seagren said.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, agreed that lawmakers are falling short. The Education Minnesota teachers’ union, he said, is standing in the way of true reform, which he said must include licensing professionals, tenure reform and definitions for what makes an effective teacher.

"Do we design education policy to take care of the kids or the adults?" he asked.

Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood summed it up as the Senate committee meeting came to a close. "Race to the Top is on a race to the finish."