Disappointment was widespread last month when Minnesota failed to make the list of finalists for federal Race to the Top education funds. For a state accustomed to being a national leader in education, it was a rude awakening to be bested by winners Delaware and Tennessee and eight other finalists.
Still, the poor showing can be the kick in the teeth Minnesota needs to jump-start educational reforms, and it should serve as a wake-up call for a teachers union that has wielded too much power in preserving the status quo. Minnesota lost points in the competition for poor plans to produce better educators and close the achievement gap, and for not having more support from its teachers unions.
The criticism from federal reviewers makes it clear that if Minnesota is serious about education reform and wants a legitimate shot at getting up to $150 million in Round 2 Race to the Top funds, two things must happen: The Legislature must get off the dime and approve several proposals that would improve teaching and learning and give the state more authority to intervene in the lowest-performing schools, and leaders of Education Minnesota, the state's leading teachers union, must no longer stand in the way of reforms that will strengthen teaching and improve achievement.
If those changes don't occur by the June reapplication deadline, there's no point in submitting a bid. And while any financial boost would be welcome in these tight budget times, this is not just about the money. Taking strong action to improve student learning is a winning formula for Minnesota -- even if it loses out on the federal funding.
Several key steps must be taken this legislative session, including creating new ways to provide alternative pathways to becoming a teacher. A bill introduced by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, would make it easier for college grads and other professionals to become educators, while requiring the same measures of quality that traditional teachers must meet. Lawmakers should also support a statewide evaluation system that ties teacher performance to a comprehensive measure of student achievement. And the state should give the education commissioner clearer authority to address low-achieving schools.
Minnesota also lost points in Race to the Top because only about 12 percent of its teachers supported the first application. The local unions in Minneapolis and St. Paul signed on, but the much more powerful and change-resistant Education Minnesota actively opposed the state application. Union leaders say that smaller class sizes, more teacher training and financial investment in education will close the achievement gap -- not more tests, checklists and punitive measures against teachers. They also argue that moving prospective teachers through faster alternative licensing tracks will only dilute quality.
Clearly the union is out of touch with current budget and political realities, and it now finds itself at odds with a conservative governor, a liberal president and desperate members of Twin Cities minority groups who are demanding progress on closing the achievement gap. Additional funding is a nice idea, but it's a pipe dream at a time when state and local units of government are struggling to meet even more-basic needs.
Education Minnesota also should recognize that the traditional teacher training route is not producing enough of the kinds of educators needed today. The union has every right and responsibility to stand up for its members, but it should not usurp legislators, school boards and administrators in shaping education policy and reform.
Finally, legislators who have too often been unduly influenced by union politics need to do what's right for Minnesota's kids.
Across the country, Race to the Top has energized the debate over education reform and has created unlikely and welcome bipartisanship. During a meeting with the Star Tribune Editorial Board last week, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a strong and frequent critic of the Obama administration, praised the reforms that Race to the Top encourages as long overdue.
More than a dozen states have already passed new laws to fit federal grant criteria, and regardless of which states win the remaining $3.5 billion in federal funding, the program has been successful. The competition has intensified interest in national standards and improving teaching and learning. It has pushed states, school districts and unions to work together in new ways. And it has focused attention on education strategies that work and on scaling them up to reach more students.
Minnesota failed to meet the challenge in Round 1 of Race to the Top. For the sake of its students and its future, it must do better in Round 2.