By Jason Hoppin Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
Wrapping both recent and long-held education reform ideas into one package, Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Monday proposed a bill that he hopes positions Minnesota for a second shot at millions of dollars as part of President Barack Obama's Race to the Top initiative.
Pawlenty said Minnesota has a history of cutting-edge education policies but is slipping behind other states angling for a piece of the $4.35 billion the federal government is spending to improve schools. Absent a major reform bill from a Legislature just weeks from adjourning, Pawlenty said there would be no further effort to secure the funding.
"This is not Tim Pawlenty versus the (teachers') union," the governor said. "This is the work of every nonpartisan, bipartisan education group that's forward-leaning in the country. ... Embraced by the president. Embraced by (Education) Secretary (Arne) Duncan. Embraced by me. Embraced by most governors across the country, and now it sits before Minnesota. The challenge has been issued, and we've got to rise to the challenge."
The bill offers a raft of oft-discussed reforms: easier access to teacher licenses for qualified professionals, linking student achievement and teacher evaluations, tenure tweaks, "tiered" licenses for teachers and principals and other initiatives.
During a news conference in his Capitol office, Pawlenty was more reserved in his criticism of the state's powerful teachers' union, Education Minnesota, than he was immediately after the
state learned it did not win an award in the initial round of Race to the Top funding. At the time, Pawlenty blamed the union for impeding many of the reforms needed to compete with other states for the grants.
The federal Department of Education scored states on a number of factors, downgrading Minnesota for lacking clear plans to develop high-quality teachers and buy-in from the teachers' union.
Education Minnesota has offered its own slate of reforms, which differ from those sought by federal education officials. They include centers for innovation and teaching improvement for academically struggling schools, reducing class sizes and adding time to the school day or year, where appropriate.
"Minnesota challenges require Minnesota solutions," Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher said.
In that initial round of grants, Minnesota placed 20th. A second round of grants of up to $175 million is forthcoming, but the state, which placed 20th in the first round, likely would have to improve its position to receive an award.
Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, chair of the K-12 Education Finance Division, said the governor's news conference was "not helpful." A joint legislative discussion of the reform proposals will be held today, and Greiling said she wants Education Minnesota to be part of the discussion. "If you have a fish that is nibbling, it is not the time to jerk the line away, as the governor just did," Greiling said.
The bill would implement tenure review every five years. It would also allow the state Department of Education to assume control of failing schools, as well as make it easier for charter schools to expand.
"Other states across the country are literally racing to pass these education reforms. While places like Delaware and Tennessee are getting in their Maseratis and the Corvettes, we have some establishment figures in Minnesota that are arguing over who's going to drive our '78 Pinto," said Rep. Joe Garofalo, R-Farmington, the ranking member of the K-12 Education Finance Division.
Pawlenty said that there is consensus building around the reform proposals and that they will come to the state sooner or later.
"The only question for Minnesota will be do you want to lead, or do you want to be late to the game?" Pawlenty said.
Jason Hoppin can be reached at 651-228-5445.
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