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Board of Regents urges state legislature to lift charter cap

State Education Commissioner David Steiner and the Board of Regents today urged the state legislature to increase the cap on charter schools in New York.

While he stopped short of asking for a specific number, Steiner roughly calculated using the Race to the Top application guidelines that a cap of 400, twice the number currently allowed under state law, would best make the state competitive in that section of the Race to the Top application.

The request comes as part of a larger effort by the Regents to create a sense of pressing need for legislative change to help the state compete for a slice of the $4.3 billion federal grant. New York is eligible for up to $700 million of the grant money.

“The crucial thing here is to say, we can’t stand still,” said State Education Commissioner David Steiner.

States earn points in the competition for grants on a variety of measures, including how friendly it is to charter school expansion and to using student test scores to rate teachers and teacher training programs. States will be judged by their policies in place at the time applications are submitted in the middle of January.

The state has nearly hit its current cap on charter schools, and a law banning the use of student data in teacher tenure decisions remains on the books. Legislation introduced in October designed to make the state more competitive for Race to the Top has failed to gain momentum.

Some critics have charged that New York lawmakers have been too slow to make changes to bring state policy in line with Race to the Top priorities. With a month until applications are due, and a holiday break taking up much of the intervening time, promoters of the Race to the Top reforms argue that the legislature must enact change now.

Steiner said he met with Paterson on Friday and has begun conversations with several lawmakers to discuss the need for legislative change.

“There is a common sense of urgency,” he said. “There may be disagreement about a detail here or there.”

Paterson said in October he believed legislative change was not needed to make New York competitive for the grant funds.

State assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who introduced the bill to align state law with Race to the Top priorities, said that whether the legislature would act quickly was “the $700 million question.”

“I hope that my colleagues are open-minded,” he said. “I hope they understand that this truly is a competition and that if we don’t take the actions that the Regents are recommending, I fear that we’ll lose out on that $700 million.”

Steiner and the Regents have also been motivated by an increasingly dire state budget situation. Yesterday Governor David Paterson announced that he would withhold $750 million in aid to schools and local governments in order to stave off insolvency.

“It’s very clear to us that the cuts announced by the governor will be painful,” Steiner said. The commissioner added that because of the budget crisis, many of the Regents’ proposals will be delayed extensively if the state does not receive funding from Race to the Top.

“We have to remind [legislators] what is at stake here,” Steiner said.

Anna is at the Regents meeting this afternoon in Albany, which she reports is standing room only. Also in attendance, she reports, is teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew, who told her he was there “just having some meetings.” We’ll have updates throughout the afternoon as we hear more of the Regents’ discussions and responses from around the state.

UPDATE: State education department Tom Dunn clarified that the Regents did not include a target cap of 400 as part of their formal recommendation. (An earlier version of this post stated that the Board asked the legislature to increase the cap to that number.)

Steiner suggested that a state cap of 400 charter schools would meet the Race to the Top guidelines, which award points to states with either no cap or a “high” cap. The guidelines define a high cap as one in which 10 percent of a state’s schools are charters. In New York, that would mean a cap of 400, Steiner said.

But Steiner stopped short of making a concrete recommendation as to a number. “We are not specifying what our colleagues across the street might or might not choose in that regard,” he said.

The Regents are also asking the legislature to amend the charter school law to allow one board to oversee multiple schools, expand access to public funding for charter school buildings, eliminate gaps in per-pupil funding between charter and district schools and allow charters to operate pre-kindergarten programs.

Advocates of the changes say it will allow the state to receive the maximum number of points in the charter school portion of the Race to the Top application. In the final scoring rubric for applications, policies to promote the growth of charter schools count for 40 out of a total 485 points.

UPDATE x2: The charter school cap was far from the only item on the Regents’ plate today. The Board is also tackling a long list of proposed changes designed to bring the state more in line with other Race to the Top initiatives, including improving data tracking systems and overhauling the way teachers and principals are trained. Anna reports that other proposals under discussion include:

  • Expanding a data system similar to New York City’s ARIS model statewide. They noted that they don’t want to simply expand the city’s model wholesale, but instead adopt the best elements of ARIS and combine them with features modeled on data systems from other states, such as Massachusetts and Colorado. However, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch noted that the Regents explicitly do not want to adopt a school rating system like New York City’s report cards. “When New York City started doing that, we told them we thought that was a mistake,” she said. “We do not believe what they did was the right way to use our test results.”
  • Creating more Leadership Academies to train principals. The Board suggested using federal funds to create a total of 15 training academies around the state as part of a list of recommendations to better principal quality. New York City’s Leadership Academy, which fast-tracks educators into principal positions, has been controversial, and a study of the Academy by three New York University professors released this summer was mostly inconclusive.
  • Changing graduation rate and adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets. The U.S. Department of Education has asked all states to submit new goals for graduation rates, and the Regents recommended today that the New York State goal be set to 80 percent. High schools that reach that goal, or that close the gap between their graduation rates and that goal by a fifth, will be designated as having made adequate yearly progress. The Regents noted that under the new target, the number of schools that fail to make AYP will likely increase.
  • Setting criteria for “turnaround” schools. Under the proposed criteria, the state will rank schools that need restructuring by lowest scores on state exams and also include schools with graduation rates persistently below 60 percent. The Regents anticipate that the list would total somewhere between 45 and 50 schools. Alternative schools, transfer schools and schools that have already been designated as “in improvement” will not be considered for the list under the proposed criteria.

UPDATE x3: United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew also spent the day at the state education department in Albany. In a statement, he said the charter cap should not be raised until the state ensures charters better serve special education students and English language learners. The Regents’ proposal recommends creating new charters specifically designed to serve higher needs students.

Mulgrew also took the discussion of turnaround schools as an opportunity to criticize the city’s school closure process. “Right now the city’s Department of Education is closing schools based on criteria that no one understands,” he said. “The state needs to step in and come up with a rational set of standards for school closings that make sure local school districts manage this process correctly.”

In recent weeks, the city Department of Education has announced that it is phasing out 20 schools, and the mayor has proposed to close the lowest-performing 10 percent of schools over the next four years.

Here is the presentation Steiner used in his briefing this morning outlining the education department’s priorities for change:

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