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Pawlenty and teachers at odds over fund application

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, right, backed by state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, on Thursday talks about education reforms he proposed that lawmakers rejected. Had they been approved, he said, the state could be eligible for more federal money. Tribune photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Minnesota teachers' union may need to reach a truce if the state wants a second round of federal education money.

But on Thursday neither side was close.

Tennessee won $500 million and Delaware $100 million in the first round of Race To The Top funding awards, announced last month, with $3.4 billion remaining for states like Minnesota.

Minnesota lost out on the initial federal funding because the state has done too little to reform education and the application lacked support from school-related organizations such as Education Minnesota, the teachers' union.

On Thursday, Pawlenty flew around the state lobbying for reforms he has sought for years, measures such as making it easier for professionals to become teachers at mid-career, linking teachers' and principals' job evaluations to student performance and giving the state authority to intervene in low-achieving schools.

The governor said that lawmakers refuse to pass reforms because Education Minnesota opposes them. If the Legislature does not approve reforms, he said that he will not apply for federal funds again.

"We need Education Minnesota to lighten up, loosen up its grip, on the status quo," Pawlenty said, adding that most legislators "have become afraid" of the 70,000-member teachers' union that donates heavily to politicians, especially Democrats.

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher did not appear ready to cave to Pawlenty's requests.

"We are deeply disappointed that Gov. Pawlenty is obviously not serious about pursuing a second Race To The Top application," Dooher said Thursday. "Today's 'take it or leave it' ultimatum makes it clear he's made a decision to not attempt a second application."

Dooher said that Pawlenty is ignoring a key federal requirement to get the money, working with teachers.

Pawlenty and Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said that on average, Minnesota students do well in various tests, but the governor said that for disadvantaged students "the results are awful. ... We need to fix that."

Pawlenty said the Obama administration requires all of these things to happen before federal funding is made available.

The Republican governor said he passionately urges the DFL-controlled Legislature to pass the reform proposals so Minnesota can improve its education system as well as get federal money.

Charles Kyte of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators urged Pawlenty and Education Minnesota to work out their differences.

"This is not something that we should be doing to them," he said about teachers.

The top House education lawmaker said she is not optimistic that a new funding application will be forthcoming, given what she sees as Pawlenty's refusal to work with teachers. She complained that he is "poking them in the eye."

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said that Pawlenty has avoided talking to her for months, but needs to talk to Democratic leaders and Education Minnesota to get federal money.

"He has to do some hard work, negotiate, to get some buy-in," Greiling said.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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.