Will New York Join the Race to the Top?

State Education Building, Albany
State Education Building, Albany

It’s déjà vu all over again in Albany.

Last year, legislators missed the July deadline for renewing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s control over the New York City public schools because of a leadership feud in the State Senate. They eventually voted but only after a month-long stalemate that caused a lot of scrambling by city officials.

This time, legislators are coming dangerously close to missing the U.S. Department of Education’s deadline to apply for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. The department’s “Race to the Top” fund will award $4 billion to a handful of states that commit to making education reforms favored by the Obama Administration. As a large state, New York could win up to $700 million if chosen. Governor David Paterson is eager to win those funds at a time of painful budget cuts. But completing the application requires lawmakers to approve Paterson’s education reform package. They didn’t act this week and they aren’t scheduled to meet again until January 19th – which also happens to be deadline for states to submit their Race to the Top applications.

So what’s the problem?

Paterson wants lawmakers to get rid of the state’s cap on charter schools. Current law allows 200 of the publicly-funded but privately-managed schools and the state is about to reach that limit. President Obama supports charter schools, and the application guidelines for Race to the Top discourage states from limiting their growth. But charters are controversial.

Here in New York City, where Mayor Bloomberg has opened 99 charters in low-income communities from Harlem to Central Brooklyn, studies have shown the independent schools get higher test scores on average than regular public schools. Many parents are thrilled and the schools get more applications than they can handle. But critics claim charters aren’t as inclusive as regular public schools and that the kids who attend them come from more motivated families. The schools are open to everyone but admission is done by random lottery. Unlike “zoned” public schools, they can’t guarantee seats to all children in their immediate neighborhoods (though they do give priority now). They also tend to take fewer English Language Learner students, on average, than regular public schools.

Charters also don’t have to follow the same work rules as regular public schools, meaning they don’t have to hire unionized teachers. That’s attracted a lot of fire from the state and city teachers’ unions. It’s no secret that Democratic lawmakers get a lot of support from organized labor. Some of the wrangling in Albany this week is over how to lift the limit on charters, and whether there should be any additional oversight.

Governor Paterson also wants legislators to get rid of a law that prevents student test scores from being used to determine teacher tenure. The law was due to expire in June, anyway. But the Obama Administration has explicitly said Race to the Top won’t be open to states with so-called “data firewalls” preventing student test scores from being used to evaluate teachers. There’s a big debate, nationally, over how to measure effective teachers and whether it’s fair to use test scores. The president of the American Federation of Teachers recently announced her support for using test scores as part of a more comprehensive system for helping teachers improve their work. But given the immediate emphasis on Race to the Top, many education observers believe New York’s application could be disqualified if its law isn’t changed.

New York State’s Education Commissioner and the Board of Regents have maintained that the state’s application is solid. They’ve included plans to build a statewide database that could track students all the way to college; more rigorous annual tests that are more closely linked to what’s taught in the classroom; and improvements to teacher training.

When lawmakers reconvene in Albany on Tuesday they’ll have to make quite a sprint in order to get into the Race. The deadline is 4:30 p.m. Applications cannot be delivered electronically. But Paterson has an office in D.C. – so someone there could walk or cab the application over to the U.S. Department of Education that day.

Interested in reading more about charter schools? This book doesn’t capture the depth of controversy over the schools. But it does paint an excellent portrait of one prominent New Yorker’s effort to build new schools in Harlem, which is a hotbed of charters. “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.” by Paul Tough.

And here are some websites where you can follow the debate here in New York over the next few days: the New York State Charter School Association has been very vocal about the need for Albany to act fast; the city’s United Federation of Teachers wants specific changes to charter schools; the statewide teachers union has been very vocal, too, on the matter.  Of course, my radio station WNYC will also be closely following the issue on the air (93.9 FM and AM 820).

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter on education for WNYC Radio. These contributions appear weekly, building on ideas over the course of a month to prolong discussion in a digital space.

(Photo of the New York State Education Building circa 1915 from the Library of Congress via Flickr)

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