"If you could be a 'tsar of education,' what would your vision look like?"
This question was posed by Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren to educational leaders at a public meeting held Monday morning at the Holiday Inn Express in Bemidji.
"Minnesota schools can dream big and think about how they can take their district to the next level," said Seagren.
Seagren's visit to Bemidji was part of the Minnesota Department of Education's week-long tour to different regions in Minnesota to gather public input on the state's application for federal Race to the Top funding.
The Race to the Top program is part of the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The fund will provide $4.35 billion to 10-15 states through a competitive grant program designed to reward states for making gains in education innovation and reform.
If Minnesota is awarded funds through RTTT, half the money will be designated for local school district, said Seagren. The funding would be based on a school district's Title 1 formula, and would be distributed over a course of four years.
"The grant is highly competitive," Seagren said. "In order to receive the funds, schools will have to sign a letter in support of whatever the application says."
The grant requirements state that in order for a state to qualify, it must address the following four education reform areas:
- Adopt internationally-benchmarked standards and assessments.
- Implement a data system that measures student success.
- Develop great teachers and leaders.
- Turn around struggling schools.
The Obama Administration hopes the RTTT program will lure states to raise their academic standards, improve teacher quality and expand the reach of charter schools.
"President Obama has said this competition is not based on politics, ideology or preferences of a particular interest group," Seagren said. "It is about adults getting rid of special interests and playing nice in the sand box."
Those who attended the meeting were asked to voice their suggestions to add to the MDE's application proposal. A bulk of the suggestions focused on MCA tests, state and federal funding, and the No Child Left Behind Act.
"I suspect the guidance principals discussed in the RTTT applications will become a large part of the reauthorization of (NCLB)," said Seagren.
Seven states have recently lifted restrictions on charter schools in order to be qualified to apply for the RTTT fund, said Seagren. One of the grant pre-requisites is that states must allow the start-up of charter schools and have a charter school law.
Other states have made efforts to compete for the RTTT program.
According to Seagren, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle has issued a list of reforms the state must take in order to compete for RTTT funds. California's Gov. Schwarzenegger held a special session to remove any legal barriers that might prevent California from competing. Oregon has named a 22-person design team to help create the state's application.
Seagren asked school leaders to formally support Minnesota's application by signing a letter of support, which MDE will be drawing up in a few weeks.
"We need to close our achievement gap," said Segren. "I'm so tired, as commissioner, of having to say, 'Yes, we are number one in the nation in ACT (scores) and we are doing all these wonderful things, but we still have this achievement gap.'"
Minnesota has five weeks to align on a strategy, implement a plan and attain letters of support. A Nov. 5 meeting will be held with stakeholders from Minnesota. The first round of application proposals is due on Dec. 1.