A lifeline for K-12 schools but with strings attached

  • Article by: NORMAN DRAPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 15, 2009 - 10:04 PM

Critics of the plan emerged immediately and said it punishes teachers for school district woes.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty threw a lifeline to Minnesota's cash-strapped schools Thursday.

At least temporarily dashing fears that the state's crushing deficit would force cuts in K-12 spending -- which consumes 40 percent of the state budget -- Pawlenty, in his State of the State address, offered increases that could add up to tens of millions of dollars in additional education spending.

But there are strings attached.

In keeping with Pawlenty's often-repeated refrain, schools should show that they're earning their additional pay. Much of the increase would be tied to improved student performance, or changes in the way schools do business. For instance, Pawlenty wants to expand his Q Comp teacher pay plan to include all Minnesota schools, including charter schools. Participation would be mandatory, said Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren.

Some estimates show the expanded Q Comp plan would pump an additional $140 million a year into schools. Currently, 44 districts and 28 charter schools, representing almost a third of Minnesota's 820,000 students, have signed up for Q Comp.

The most controversial element of Q Comp is its requirement to change the pay system from one based on years of experience and education to one based on classroom performance and improved student achievement.

Another Pawlenty proposal would reward districts with up to 2 percent funding increases per pupil for each child who shows improved test scores.

DFLers, who have their own school funding proposal on the table, were quick to dash water on the governor's plan as a smoke-and-mirrors approach for which funding doesn't exist. DFLers have also criticized Q Comp as a merit pay plan that takes money away from basic school funding.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, and chairwoman of the House K-12 Finance Division, called the Pawlenty education plan "the survival of the fittest," because most of its money goes to districts where students are doing well.

Another Pawlenty education proposal provides mandatory arbitration to settle drawn-out contract negotiations between teachers and school boards. That, Greiling said, is just another way to penalize teachers for schools' problems.

"He still says that teachers are the problem of the financial woes of the schools," she said. "He says he doesn't want to bash teaching, but he kind of does. He's saying, 'They make too much money,' and 'They're not good enough.'"

Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, is dead set against the arbitration proposal. "We've only had three [teacher] strikes since 1995," said Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher. "It fundamentally takes away our right to bargain with any sort of leverage."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547

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