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Published February 16, 2011, 05:21 PM

Dayton to Use Grants to Spur Education Innovation

Faced with a $6.2 billion budget deficit and a campaign promise to increase education spending, Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed spending $17 million over two years on grants to encourage innovative education ideas and spread them throughout the state.

By: Chris Williams, Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Faced with a $6.2 billion budget deficit and a campaign promise to increase education spending, Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed spending $17 million over two years on grants to encourage innovative education ideas and spread them throughout the state.

It's only a dusting on top of the $14.2 billion in proposed K-12 spending, a slight increase from the previous budget, but state education leaders hope it will have a disproportionate impact along the lines of the President Barack Obama's Race to the Top grant program.

Dozens of states approved education reforms to improve their chances of getting a slice of that $3.4 billion in federal grant money — even though only 11 states and the District of Columbia won. Obama called it "the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation" and went on, "For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning."

That's the sort of effect that Dayton and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius are hoping for from a pair of new grant programs, said Charlene Briner, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education. She said that early in budget talks Dayton was looking for ways to highlight successful education programs and encourage collaboration — without spending too much money.

"Because it is a smaller pool of money, where is it going to make the biggest bang for the buck?" Briner said.

Dayton and Cassellius were traveling Wednesday and were unavailable for comment.

On Tuesday, the governor proposed $52 million in new education spending, with $33 million going toward providing all-day kindergarten, $17 million for the two grant programs and $2 million for expanding statewide a rating system for early childhood programs. However, Dayton's budget also seeks to raise billions of dollars in new taxes, which GOP leaders have said have no chance of approval in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The Governor's Excellence in Education Award would spend nearly $12 million over two years to recognize schools where students make exceptional academic strides in reading and math. Half the grant money flowing to each school would be spent on teaching the best practices to other schools.

"Whether it is kids at high levels that are achieving exceptional growth, or kids who are way below proficiency, but still really growing, we want to figure out how they are doing it," Briner said.

The award is open to all public schools, including charters. "The way people have supported and promoted them, is that charter schools are smaller and they are nimble and they should be able to find what's working and turn it around," she said. "But let's incent them to share it."

Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College in St. Paul, said this was the first time what he knew of that a governor officially acknowledged that a charter school's innovations should be transplanted into district schools.

"I think that is historic," he said. "If the governor is in fact saying that he wants the state to learn from outstanding district and charter schools he would be one of the first, if not the very first, to recommend that."

He said it's a sign the relationship between traditional school districts and charter schools was maturing, more than 20 years after the first charter school opened in Minnesota. "I think there is a growing recognition around the country that schools can learn from each other," he said.

The other program, the Achievement Gap Innovation Fund, would encourage schools to develop innovative, technology-based approaches to shrinking the state's stubborn achievement gap between white students and racial minorities — one of the largest such gaps in the nation.

It would award about 30 grants of up to $100,000 each to schools each year. Briner said the technological requirement would be broadly defined. For example, "If you were using data to inform instruction that is really making some gains and closing those gaps, of course it would" qualify, she said.

It's the right approach when budgets are tight, said Mary Cecconi, executive director of St. Paul-based Parents United For Public Schools. "Trying to incentivize is really a good way to go," she said. "It makes sense. The commissioner has really been about finding bright spots and replicating them."

Rep. Patrick Garofalo, R-Farmington and chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, said he looked forward to hearing more about the details of the grants, but he supported the general concept behind them.

"We want to foster innovation and encourage people to do things differently because, clearly, what we are doing is not working right now," he said.

The Minnesota Department of Education is scheduled to present the proposed education budget to Garofalo's committee on Thursday.

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