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Schools Left Behind in Race to the Top

February 08, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Minnesota's schools are financially starved, but while President Obama offers billions of dollars through his Race to the Top initiative, they balk because Gov. Tim Pawlenty has linked the federal money to participation in his controversial Q Comp program. This means thousands of Minnesota students, like those in districts such as Alexandria and Dassel-Cokato, may be left out of the chance for the extra federal money.

President Obama created Race to the Top with $4.3 billion in economic recovery funds, telling his Education Department to create a grant system that outlines certain criteria. States that meet most of the criteria will get the most money. Potentially, the grant could bring $330 million to Minnesota over four years. The state will find out in April if it will get any of the grant money.

In order to meet the grant's guidelines, states had to get as many education stakeholders on board as possible. Thus the Minnesota Department of Education required any district that wanted Race to the Top funds to sign a Memorandum of Agreement. No memorandum, no shot at the cash.

Here's the odd thing: In order to sign the memorandum, districts had to agree to Pawlenty's five-year-old Q Comp teacher merit pay plan. Districts have been wary of signing up because no one has developed a better way to determine teacher merit than the combination of education and experience used today. Because such a way to judge merit has been elusive, a mere 40 out of 341 districts have signed up for Q Comp since 2005.

Remember, schools are in the worst financial shape they have been in decades. Many Minnesota districts signed on not because they love Q Comp, but because they can't afford not to sign up. State aid accounts for more than 80 percent of districts' budgets, yet state aid has dropped an inflation-adjusted 14 percent since 2003. This has forced districts to marshal citizen support to run levy elections to support schools. The state has also made several large accounting shifts in the past year that have forced many districts to borrow money to pay their bills and incur interest and fee charges. As a result, class sizes have risen dramatically, programs have been cut, teachers have been laid off and the quality of education in Minnesota has dropped.

Even in their time of financial need, Q Comp became a barrier to some districts needs for Race to the Top funds.

Such was the case in Alexandria Public Schools. Superintendent Terry Quist said district leaders were dismayed that the state provided details of the program in December yet were asked to sign the Memorandum of Agreement by Jan. 13. They were leery of trying to absorb Race to the Top information along with their ongoing contract negotiations and do justice to both.

Plus, there is some history. "We were in the Q Comp program in the past, but we left a few years ago," Quist said, because "there was a sense that Q Comp would ultimately be tied back to local (and not state) funding, and because it's very difficult to find a revised salary structure.

"I don't think we were there in terms of being able to make a good faith effort to add Q Comp back into our district. It was a tough decision. We're committed to the goals of Race to the Top such as high standards and achievement. We'll just have less money to do it."

Much the same situation is occurring in Dassel-Cokato Public Schools. Superintendent Jeff Powers said the district's Q Comp application was denied twice by the MDE, and the district's teachers had voted the idea down.

"I could have signed the memorandum myself, but that would break trust with the teachers," Powers said. "We don't want to do Race to the Top if it includes Q Comp, and that's the attitude of a lot of district leaders across the state. They signed (the memorandum) just to cover their butts and many will pull out if Q Comp is included. We decided not to do that. We'll miss out on some dollars, but we'll make sure it doesn't touch teachers or class expenses."

There is also doubt as to whether the state can afford Q-Comp if all the districts that signed the memorandum become Q Comp districts. Q Comp is awarded on a per-student basis. The legislature has appropriated enough money to pay for 55 percent of all students to enroll in Q Comp. Unfortunately, districts with 93 percent of the state's students signed up for Race to the Top.

Since Race to the Top funds will only add new development for principals, the Q Comp money has to come from the state - the same state that is billions under budget, that has decreased aid to schools, that has shifted money away from schools, and that will not may aid payments to schools this spring in order to pay its own bills.

This doesn't sound like a very good deal.

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