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Merryl Tisch challenges Obama, Duncan to a public debate

Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the Board of Regents (file photo)
Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the Board of Regents (file photo)

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch is challenging President Obama and his secretary of education to a verbal duel over New York’s access to a special pot of federal stimulus dollars for schools.

“I am willing to debate the president and Arne Duncan in public space at any time of their choosing on the impact of this law in New York State,” Tisch said in a telephone interview this evening.

Obama administration officials have said that states that ban the use of test scores to evaluate teachers will not be eligible for the dollars, called the Race to the Top fund. A New York law prohibits something very similar, using student test scores to decide whether teachers deserve tenure.

A nonprofit group, The New Teacher Project, today said the law should exclude New York from receiving Race to the Top funds. (Founded by Michelle Rhee, the D.C. schools chancellor, The New Teacher Project brings non-traditionally trained teachers into school districts and advocates for teaching policies that often clash with teachers unions’ positions.)

Duncan himself has suggested that New York’s law does not make the cut. “Believe it or not, several states including New York, Wisconsin, and California, have laws, they have laws that create a firewall between students and teacher data,” Duncan said at a June conference where he previewed the guidelines around the fund.

The administration’s aim is to spur states to change laws and policies it disapproves of. Duncan has vowed to dole out the dollars in two batches, one this fall and the next in 2010, in order to give state legislatures time to change their laws.

But New York officials, including Governor Paterson and Tisch, have refused to accept that the state might be disqualified. Teachers union officials, including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who lobbied state lawmakers to pass the law last year, are also lobbying hard for New York not to be disqualified.

Tisch said that she has spoken personally to Duncan to explain the “the context of this law.” She said that New York’s law was the result of a personal dispute between the city schools chancellor, Joel Klein, and Weingarten, then head of the New York City union. That dispute should not overshadow the other ways in which the state is in line with the White House’s goals for improving schools, she said.

“If the federal government wants to leave over 3 million youngsters in this country out of their ability to benefit by Race to the Top dollars because of a law on the books that is due to expire and a law that has not impacted one teacher or one youngster in New York State, then I am really living in an alternate universe,” Tisch said, her voice raised. “Because everything I hear them say is they want to help kids who are sitting in progressive classrooms across this country.”

She added, “And that’s the last I want to say about this tonight because I’m getting really aggravated.”

Tisch has also said previously that New York’s law does not disqualify the state because it has to do with teacher tenure decisions, not teacher evaluations. When I asked her how deciding whether a teacher deserves tenure does not constitute an evaluation, she replied, “What can I tell you? Then Arne Duncan should have that fight with Randi, okay?”

In another sign of New York’s commitment to winning the funds, Tisch said the state has appointed an outside consultant to head its efforts to apply for Race to the Top Funds. JoEllen Lynch, who formerly served as a top deputy to Klein, is working on a contract to head the project.

A spokesman for Duncan, Justin Hamilton, would not say whether New York will qualify for the funds. “Just as we’re not going to predict who will win the Race to the Top, we’re not going to predict who isn’t,” Hamilton said in a statement. “We have a process in place that allows everyone to put their best foot forward, and we encourage all states to apply.”

I just asked Hamilton for a comment about Tisch’s statements and will add that when it arrives.

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