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Minnesota officials seek bold education reforms

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

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

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

Tennessee and Delaware won the first round of federal competition, with Georgia coming up short in third place.

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 discuss 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.

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.

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

Minnesota education leaders also will attend a meeting today in which Delaware and Tennessee officials will provide tips about improving 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.

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. LeRoy Stumpf, a Plummer Democrat who leads the Senate education finance committee, said reforming schools is not the full answer to improving education.

"It is so important that if we are going to bridge that gap and maximize the talented resources, which are our children, it is not just what happens in that classroom," Stumpf said. "It is what happens at home, it is what happens before school, if those children have a breakfast."

Stumpf suggested that all-day kindergarten would help. So would after-school programs, he added, citing dramatic increase in crime after Moorhead and Duluth dropped their programs in budget cuts.

"It is not just what happens in the classrooms," Stumpf said.