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Seagren: Details unclear about stimulus funding for schools

WILLMAR -- Federal economic stimulus money could be coming to area schools, but it's too soon to know how much or how soon.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren has told school districts not to base budget decisions on anticipated stimulus payments. Seagren was in Willmar on Wednesday to talk about Gov. Tim Pawlenty's education proposals in the next two-year state budget and about the stimulus funding.

The state will receive $1.1 billion in stimulus money for education, Seagren said.

Several different estimates of how much each school district will receive have been sent out in the past month. Those numbers could continue to change before the money is distributed to the states, Seagren said.

"It's still got to play out," she said, but a few things are clear.

Some of the money will go straight to school districts for Title I reading and math instruction and for special education. Much of the rest will go to the state where it can be used to fill gaps in education funding for K-12 education and for post-secondary education.

Some of the rest of the money could be distributed based on the number of low-income students in a district, she said.

The state will get to keep some of the money, which could be used to try to develop new programs, she said. One idea is an intensive summer school to help struggling students catch up before they enter ninth grade. Another is a leadership training program for principals.

Pawlenty has proposed an increase of $161 million in education spending. Some of it would be used to require school districts to adopt a merit pay system for teachers.

Seagren said the governor is committed to that spending, even though the state faces a projected budget deficit of nearly $5 billion. The Legislature is currently holding hearings on Pawlenty's budget proposal and awaiting a new state revenue forecast due in March.

State officials feel that enough data are available to point to the success of the state's merit pay system, called Q Comp, Seagren said.

The program offers professional development training for teachers and provides incentive pay for those who participate.

The biggest indicator of a student's success is "a quality teacher in the classroom," she said. "For too long, we've put a lot of expectations on teachers, but we haven't supported them so they can do their jobs."

The state has implemented a new "growth model" on the report cards it issues for each school in the state. The model indicates the percentage of students who have shown growth during a school year and how much growth they have shown.

Seagren said the governor is proposing sending additional funding to school districts for students who have shown growth.

It would offset some of the aspects of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which sometimes requires schools to divert federal funding if they don't meet state goals.

"I get frustrated when we have punishment all the time," Seagren said, and she sees the new proposal as a way to recognize a district's efforts.

Seagren said she does not expect a repeal of No Child Left Behind, as some lawmakers advocate, but she hopes there will be some changes to allow for flexibility.

"I would like to keep it as simple as possible, and as fair and as transparent," she said.

While watching President Barack Obama's address to Congress this week, she said, she applauded his comments about education and the importance of finishing high school.

"I think President Obama is a great role model," she said. "He can send a strong message about the importance of education."