Minnesota educators think the state has a good chance to receive a chunk of some $4.35 billion in grants that the Obama administration plans to give to states to promote school innovation.

The "Race to the Top" grants are part of the federal stimulus package passed by Congress this spring. States compete against each other for the money, and experts say Minnesota's history as an education reformer that gets results means the state could win part of the pot of money.

"This could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars" for Minnesota, said Dan Weisberg, vice president of policy and general counsel for the New Teacher Project, a national education group that has rated Minnesota "competitive" in the fight for the funds. "This is not funding that is going to plug holes. It is going to fund real, aggressive reforms."

While the U.S. Department of Education has not given any indication of how many states might receive the money, experts predict that anywhere from 10 to 15 might get funding.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, the money is being given to "encourage and reward states making dramatic education reforms."

States have to show they've done work on, and have dramatic ideas to improve, teacher effectiveness, the data they use to track students, the rules and tests that govern what each student learns, and how states turn around struggling schools.

In 1991, Minnesota was the first state in the nation to allow charter schools, and many Minnesota districts also run Gov. Tim Pawlenty's "Q Comp" program, which is meant to provide extra pay for the most effective teachers.

Minnesota also has education standards -- rules that dictate what content students are taught -- that are based on international standards. Many educators credit these standards with the state's high performance when compared nationally and internationally in math and science.

"There's a pretty good chance of the state getting the money," said P. Fred Storti, executive director of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals' Association and a participant in Minnesota Department of Education meetings on the subject.

But the money is far from won.

The state's history as a reformer and its current place in education is only half the battle. The state needs to submit a complex application to the U.S. Department of Education, and it needs to include detailed plans on how to change things for students in Minnesota.

"It's not over," said Walsh. "We have to put an aggressive application in place, and there are a lot of hurdles." But Minnesota "absolutely" has a good shot, he said.

"So far, we've just got initial looks as to who lines up well, and we do," he said.

One weakness in the state's application process, according to Weisberg, is the way that the state evaluates and rewards teachers. He said that in Minnesota -- like virtually every other state -- there's no convincing way to tell who the very best teachers are.

Teacher evaluations reward virtually every teacher, he said, so the state can't differentiate between who is a great teacher and needs to be emulated, and who is only mediocre.

Minnesota also has a larger than average achievement gap between white and black students. The funding will require states to show they will be able to raise student achievement and close achievement gaps.

On recent nationwide math tests, for example, there was a 37 percentage point difference in the performance of white and black eighth-graders, which is not significantly smaller, statistically speaking, than the 41-point difference found in 1990. In fourth-grade math, the difference has dropped from 38 to 28 percentage points from 1992 to 2009.

The federal application process for the "Race to the Top" grants is so complicated that in July, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded 15 states money to hire consultants to help. Minnesota received $250,000 -- another indicator, educators say, that Minnesota has a shot -- to hire a consultant to lead the application writing process.

After other states complained, the foundation expanded its offer to other states that share the foundation's education goals.

The official application was supposed to arrive at the Department of Education in early October, but hasn't shown up yet, which makes officials speculate that the Dec. 1 deadline will be pushed back.

"The big picture is that Minnesota has a good story to tell in many areas about the efforts it's made thus far on education reform," Weisberg said.

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460