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Race to the Top

FARGO, N.D. -- The race is on.

Tuesday is the deadline for states to apply for the first round of federal Race to the Top grants.

The stimulus package program pits states against one another in a heated competition over the $4.3 billion earmarked for education reforms.

Minnesota will compete for more than $230 million over four years, even as some in the state have voiced qualms about the program. North Dakota, which stands to gain $20 million to $75 million, will pass on Tuesday's deadline as leaders question the race's fairness.

"I think it can be something that can really move this country in a great way," said Dakota Draper, president of North Dakota's teacher association. "(But) is a competitive grant program the best way to go about changing education in this country?"

To receive one of the coveted grants, states need to make headway in aligning academic standards, tracking student progress, improving and rewarding teacher effectiveness, and turning around struggling schools.

Experts estimate seven to 10 states will likely split the grant money.

North Dakota bows out

Even if North Dakota isn't one of the winners, the education department plans to apply by June for phase two of the program.

"We're going to develop a North Dakota plan ... we think is going to address the underlying intent (of Race to the Top) ... that will meet our needs as a state," said state Assistant School Superintendent Gary Gronberg.

School officials say the race's requirements, such as charter schools, aren't practical for North Dakota.

"It seems to be kind of slanted against us," said Draper of the North Dakota Education Association. "I'm not too thrilled about some of the things that kind of keep North Dakota out of the race."

In August, the Department of Public Instruction and top state educational groups sent a letter to the Department of Education, voicing their concern.

"This is yet another example of the federal government's effort to determine education policy in the states," said Jon Martinson, the executive director of North Dakota's school board association. "It becomes very prescriptive of education criteria."

The state's application will be a strategic plan of sorts for the state's education system that could make schools more transparent, accountable and focused on at-risk students.

It will be a realistic plan for the state, Gronberg said, though he isn't banking on winning.

"For some states, they need the money," he said. "North Dakota can use money to help leverage change, but we're not in the same kind of position where we're trying to maintain our education infrastructure."

Minnesota jumps in

In Minnesota, the state's Department of Education says they have an edge in the competition.

Officials have pointed to the state's newly revised math standards and Q-Comp, Minnesota's program that links teacher pay to performance.

The state's requirement that districts join Q-Comp to become eligible for Race to the Top funds has riled up some educators. Education Minnesota, the state's teacher union that has long been leery of Q-Comp, balked at that requirement.

Last spring, Gov. Tim Pawlenty failed to get the state legislature to mandate Q-Comp participation. Now, the union charged, the state is using the federal grant to corral cash-strapped districts into the program. The union's qualms could count against the state's application.

At a recent meeting, the Moorhead School Board gave the state's plan a scathing assessment.

"I'm very troubled by what the state is promising to do," said board member Bill Tomhave. "They're promising to cure things that, if we knew how to cure, we would do it."

Board members worried the state's plan will have districts wading through a thicket of red tape and sap local control of key issues such as evaluating teachers and assessing students.

Superintendent Lynne Kovash said she has concerns of her own.

Teachers and the district have already agreed to consider Q-Comp this spring. But Kovash said she's worried about proposed changes to the program, which might make merit pay more dependent on standardized test scores - just one facet of a teacher's performance.

However, the district stands to gain as much as $7 million from participating. So, the Board signed a non-binding memorandum that will allow it to take advantage should the state win a grant; it can also opt out.

Jeff Offutt, Education Moorhead's president, passed on signing the memo.

"There were just too many unanswered questions," he said, also citing an apparent emphasis on standardized test scores in evaluating teachers.

Nearly two-thirds of districts signed on, including most in this area.

Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said the state had not disclosed its entire application for fear its competitors might poach ideas.

She said the notion that standardized test scores will play a larger role in the new Q-Comp was a misunderstanding. The state merely plans to expand the program to principals and offer districts more help with designing their own evaluation models, she said.

"We know that we've got fine teachers in Minnesota," Seagren said. "If we give them the support that they need to be successful, we think we can see phenomenal results."

Mila Koumpilova and Kelly Smith write for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.