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Nearly three-dozen state legislators gathered Tuesday to begin the task of reforming several education laws. Tribune photo by Don Davis

Bold education reforms are urged

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ST. PAUL -- Three dozen Minnesota education policymakers sat around a horseshoe-shaped table Tuesday attempting to win a federal financial bonus.

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"We can't be Milquetoast," Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said.

Seagren was just back from Washington, where she learned Georgia education leaders are ready to push hard their second attempt to get more federal funds, among states that missed out on original Race To The Top funding that are in for Round 2 with $175 million as the prize.

Tennessee and Delaware won the first round of federal competition, with Georgia's third-place finish just out of the money.

In order to get the money, states must prove they are taking steps to improve their education systems. To that end, Minnesota House and Senate education committee members joined with Seagren and Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher to began discussion Tuesday about the next step.

Seagren said speed is important. She and her boss, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, set a May 1 deadline for finishing the second application.

"We need to be very aggressive," she said.

Reaching an agreement on reforms may be difficult.

Education Minnesota, representing Minnesota teachers, did not sign off on the Pawlenty administration's first attempt to get federal funds. And it appears the union still is not on board.

"We need to close Minnesota's achievement gap, we need to focus on Minnesota's kids," Dooher said, but added that "meaningless change" should not be accepted.

Referring to his hesitation about making changes like Tennessee did, he said: "Nashville is not Nashwauk." Instead, he added, the Minnesota Legislature must focus on Minnesota needs.

One of the major problems federal officials saw in Minnesota's first application was that it did not have the support of all education groups, such as Education Minnesota.

"Race To The Top is about closing the achievement gap," Dooher said. "We must focus our policies and our reforms in ways which accomplish that critical goal. Unfortunately, we see very little in the governor's ideas that have that much-needed focus."

Seagren said she plans to meet with Dooher and his staff all day Thursday in an attempt to convince Education Minnesota to support those of Pawlenty's priorities, many of which teachers oppose.

Before the Seagren-Dooher meeting, Minnesota education leaders will attend an all-day meeting today in which Delaware and Tennessee officials will provide tips to Minnesota and other states how to improve their Race To The Top applications.

Pawlenty has said that receiving federal money should not be the main reason to make changes.

"While Race To The Top has focused attention on the need for reform, we should be taking these steps regardless of the financial incentives," Pawlenty said Monday while introducing his slate of education reform measures.

He talked about Maryland, where the Legislature last week passed a compromise between the governor and a teachers' union that makes many of the reforms he seeks.

Among Pawlenty's proposals are ones to make sure teachers are competent, require teachers and principals get paid in part based on how well students perform and provide mid-career Minnesotans an easier pathway to become teachers.

Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, said legislators "see things in black and white" and may not be as creative as needed to make changes needed to win the federal money.

"I commend you for sticking with us," she told Seagren.

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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