Minnesota Prepares for Race to the Top’s Second Round

Published May 8, 2010

Undeterred by his state’s poor showing in the first round of Race to the Top, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) has set out a laundry list of proposals—some that have been introduced as legislation and some not—he says are needed to move the state forward in K-12 innovation.

Topping Pawlenty’s list is a measure to ensure mid-career professionals and experts can move quickly into the classroom without having to earn a teaching degree.

Paul Peterson, director of the program on education policy and governance at Harvard University, said eliminating the certification requirement is a good idea a few other states have already adopted.

“Certification in order to be able to teach is one of the few things that all researchers out there agree on,” Peterson said. “There is no evidence that certified teachers are any more effective [than noncertified teachers]. If you eliminate the certification rules, you greatly broaden the number of individuals you have available to teach.”

Union Deterred Past Reforms

Peterson says the bigger the pool, the more teaching talent schools can select from.

“A lot of states have alternative certification policies. In some of them you must take education courses once you are hired, but there’s been no evidence of any value of these courses,” Peterson said. “A lot of states are moving forward in [the non-certification] direction. I think the governor in Minnesota has a chance to be successful with this.”

Annette Meeks, chief executive officer of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, notes Republican reformers have been seeking alternative certification for 15 years, and now many Democrats support the idea as well. But the state’s teachers union, Education Minnesota, has successfully defeated all attempts at the reform.

“They have ironclad resistance to any type of reform legislation,” Meeks said. “The union was the only one to testify against the [alternative certification] proposal when it had a hearing.”

A major problem, said Meeks, is the union’s influence over the state legislature. The union spent $1.4 million in lobbying in 2009, second only to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

Leave Race, Legislator Says

Although Pawlenty says seeking second-round funding in Race to the Top is a priority, a high school teacher and state representative wants the Gopher State to drop out of the program entirely.

Rep. Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona) recently introduced along with four Republican coauthors a bill to pull Minnesota out of “Race to the Top.” Pelowski says he believes the mandates that come with the money will eventually cost the state millions of dollars more than it will get back.

“It’s too early to say how effective the program will be,” Peterson said. “Among the positive elements are that it lifts caps on charter schools, [includes] merit pay proposals, and has better-quality data collection. There are a number of elements in Race to the Top to be applauded.”

“But the program also raises several questions. In order to participate, you have to have buy-in agreements from teachers’ organizations along with your proposal,” Peterson noted. “I don’t think it is wise public policy to give a particular group that much power. It’s only the first round of the program, so we will have to see what happens with it.”

‘Pent-Up Frustration’

Meeks said any program that brings more funds education in the state is good, but Minnesotans are distrustful of federal government education programs because most include mandates without any funding to support them.

Education makes up 37 percent of the state’s budget, and only 5 percent of the funds come from the federal government, Meeks explains. “There’s a lot of pent-up frustration against Washington,” she said.

But the state has far to go to improve its educational programs, Meeks said, noting the National Council on Teacher Quality recently gave the state a  “D-minus” for education.

In the first phase of the Race to the Top program, Delaware won approximately $100 million and Tennessee $500 million to implement their school reform plans over the next four years.

The U.S. Department of Education will make about $3.4 billion available for the second phase of the Race to the Top competition.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.