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Paterson adds new twist to the Race to the Top debate

Governor David Paterson, speaking today at Harlem's P.S. 208
Governor David Paterson, speaking today at Harlem's P.S. 208

Governor Paterson insisted today that New York deserves a piece of the special Race to the Top stimulus fund for schools, declaring that an Obama official assured him the state will be eligible for the funds.

But there was immediate confusion over the governor’s explanation for why New York is eligible.

Paterson said that New York’s tenure law, which bans school districts from using student test scores when doling out teacher tenure, applies only to New York City. Therefore, he said, it does not violate Race to the Top’s requirement that states not link student data to teachers.

“That’s a specific law to New York City,” Paterson said, adding that the provision is “a local law that’s implemented through the state.”

A Bloomberg administration source disputed that interpretation, saying that the tenure provision applies statewide.

Two other state school officials, the chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch and the newly appointed education commissioner David Steiner, have also said they believe New York should not be disqualified. But they offered a different explanation: that the New York ban only has to do with tenure decisions while the Race to the Top requirement regards teacher evaluations.

Paterson said that federal education officials have assured him and State Deputy Secretary of Education Duffy Palmer that the tenure law would not hurt the state’s eligibility for the federal money.

Paterson spoke alongside Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Congressman Charles Rangel at an announcement of a $175-million stimulus program to provide low-income New York families grants to buy school supplies.

A spokesperson for Paterson confirmed that the governor interprets the firewall between teacher tenure decisions and student data to apply only to New York City.

Critics said the statement showed evidence of dysfunction in state education policies.

“This is more proof that New York is royally screwed up when it comes to education policies that kind of sort of come out of Albany,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. Williams argued in an editorial earlier this week that the tenure regulations should prevent the state from receiving stimulus grants.

Peter Cunningham, assistant secretary for communications and outreach at the federal Department of Education, said that the department is still in a formal comment period for their eligibility requirements and that it is too soon to say what might disqualify a state from receiving grant money.

“There will be a formal process to to determine eligibility, and New York, like any other state, will have an opportunity to participate in that process,” Cunningham said. “Officially we are not officially telling anyone you’re in our you’re out.”

Cunningham said that he couldn’t confirm that a federal official had assured Paterson of New York’s eligibility.

“It’s altogether possible that he talked to somebone who told him I think you’re fine,” Cunningham said. “But I don’t know, there’s a lot of folks here.”

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