Minnesota educators think that the state has a good chance to receive up to $250 million of the $4.35 billion the Obama administration plans to give to states to promote school innovation.

But a month before Minnesota's application for the "Race to the Top" money is due, a fight has erupted between education players in the state over what is in the application and whether the education reforms it pushes are too drastic.

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher called a news conference Wednesday to criticize the state's approach, saying that it was a top-down strategy that would expand the bureaucracy and take the focus off quality teaching.

He indicated that the statewide teachers' union would not support the application unless it is changed, even though the union's blessing could increase Minnesota's chances of receiving the money.

The application calls for expanding the state's merit pay program, which rewards high-performing teachers, and basing teacher evaluations more squarely on students' test scores -- ideas the Obama administration supports, but unions consider troublesome.

Responding to the union's news conference, Bill Walsh, the federal liaison for the Minnesota Department of Education, said it's too bad that Education Minnesota is "the only thing standing in the way of us getting $200 million ... because they don't want to do the reform."

To be fair, 49 other states also may stand in the way, because the grant process is a competition meant to "encourage and reward states making dramatic education reforms," according to the Minnesota Department of Education. While the U.S. Department of Education has not indicated how many states might get funding, experts predict the number will be from 10 to 15.

States have to show they have worked on and have dramatic ideas to improve teacher effectiveness, the data they use to track students, the rules and tests that determine what each student learns, and the strategies they employ to turn around struggling schools.

Minnesota's application said the state would direct 80 percent of its "Race to the Top" money to local school districts, but districts that want their share would be required to sign up for "Q Comp," Gov. Tim Pawlenty's controversial merit pay program. Forty-four school districts and 32 charter schools currently participate, representing just under a third of the state's students and teachers.

"If the districts want the money, they're going to have to do the reform," Walsh said.

Experts say Minnesota's history as an education reformer that gets results means it has a good shot at getting the money, which comes from the federal stimulus program.

In 1991, Minnesota was the first state to allow charter schools. Q Comp and the state's long history of choice through open enrollment also give it the "reformer" mantle.

In February, a report from the state's legislative auditor said there wasn't enough evidence to know whether Q Comp affects student achievement because it's voluntary and school districts have many other programs in place.

With a stronger link to student test scores, Walsh said, "it's going to become clear which teachers are effective and which should be shown the door."

Can't 'lose competitive edge'

Education Minnesota's Dooher proposed other ideas for the state's application, such as transforming the state's lowest-performing schools into "Centers of Teaching Excellence," which he said could be a model for others on how to teach struggling students.

He also suggested the state launch a "grow our own" program to "recruit and train a diverse pool of talented potential teachers beginning in high school."

"Our primary goal has to be on closing the achievement gap," he said.

The state's current plan, he said, is a "one size-fits-all evaluation system that relies heavily on testing at the expense of great teaching." He said that instead of punishing teachers based on student test scores, results should be used to show where students are struggling and need help.

Dooher invited 100 local teachers' union presidents and superintendents to accompany him to a scheduled meeting Thursday to discuss the state's application with Education Commissioner Alice Seagren.

Walsh cautioned that while there's still time for discussion, "the plan can't get weakened to the point where we lose our competitive edge."

The application, which so far is an inch thick, is due to the federal government by Jan. 19. Walsh said the $175 million to $250 million is the only new money schools would be likely to get anytime soon.

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460