Race to the Top: A bullet dodged?


Minnesota is not among the finalists for the federal government’s Race to the Top funds, the Obama administration announced Thursday.

There’s a phrase from the gambling world that seems appropriate at this point: When the table turns cold, it’s best just to walk away.

The money — as much as $350 million for Minnesota — would have been nice. But like so many things, it would not have been as simple as getting a check in the mail. Minnesota would have had to jump through hoops and make concessions to get that money, hoops and concessions that might not be in the best interest of Minnesota students.

Minnesota’s application for Race to the Top would have created an “Office of Turnaround Schools” that would close underperforming schools or hand them over to charter schools or for-profit companies. This is the wrong way to help these students. What would help them is to provide enough well-trained teachers with enough equipment in the proper facilities to do their jobs. Students at these schools need school nurses, counselors, social workers, mental and physical health assessments — a whole range of help that they don’t receive now because the state of Minnesota refuses to adequately fund schools.

Race to the Top would have handcuffed teacher salaries to a student achievement test. This is universally regarded as a bad idea, yet one still promoted by Gov. Pawlenty and his “Quality Compensation” plan.

No one seemed quite sure what would happen to Race to the Top programs when the federal money ran out. To keep them going, the state would have had to pick up the bill, yet state lawmakers had little to no input into the state’s Race to the Top application. This means that there was a very strong possibility that Race to the Top programs would not have lasted more than several years.

There was one good part of Race to the Top that Minnesota should enact on its own: Creating a database to track students as they move through the education system from preschool through college, if possible. Such a system will give teachers access to the data necessary to create an individualized learning plan for each student tailored to his or her strengths and needs.

Money from Race to the Top to fund such a database would have been welcome but as for the rest of it, well, maybe we got lucky.

The Obama administration will choose among the following states to divvy up the $4.3 billion in Race to the Top grants: Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee. The finalists will be announced in April.

For more information, check out the Star Tribune story.