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City waiting for charter cap resolution before signing RttT bid

With just over a week until the state’s Race to the Top application is due, the city is playing a game of chicken with the state legislature to pressure lawmakers into raising the cap on charter schools.

Today was the deadline for school districts to sign onto the state’s Race to the Top application, signaling they will participate in the state’s reform plans and making them eligible for a slice of the federal funds.

But the Department of Education of New York City —the state’s (and country’s) largest school district — has not yet agreed to the plan, taking advantage of a last-minute state extension of the deadline.

“We’re awaiting action on the charter cap,” DOE spokesman David Cantor said.

The more school districts that sign onto a state’s application, the more points the state earns in the competition for grant funds.

If New York City refuses its buy-in to the state’s plan, it could potentially cripple New York’s bid for the grant, which could deprive the state of a badly-needed $700 million in funding. The governor is currently withholding nearly $600 million in school aid from districts around the state, a move he defends as an attempt to stave off state financial insolvency.

State education officials had originally given school districts until 5 p.m. today to sign a Memorandum of Understanding indicating that the district agrees to participate in the state’s Race to the Top reform efforts. This afternoon, the state education department had received MOUs from over 600 of New York’s 698 school districts, and others continued to arrive, state education department spokesman Tom Dunn said.

Nevertheless, today state Education Commissioner David Steiner extended the deadline until next Wednesday.

“[S]ome of you have explained that, for very good reasons, you cannot meet the due date of today, January 8,” Steiner wrote in a statement to school districts. “We want to ensure that everyone is represented and that New York’s application demonstrates very strong local support.”

Along with refusing to sign onto the state’s plan, the DOE has not spoken to the city teachers union about whether it will agree to the plans. States also get points for having union support for their applications, but a spokesman for the UFT, Dick Riley, said the union hasn’t been shown the plans.

The city’s reluctance to move forward pending action on the charter cap issue will undoubtedly hang over Albany as the legislature prepares to take up the bill Governor David Paterson introduced yesterday, which would eliminate the cap altogether. The governor said he wants the bill passed by January 14, the day after the state education department’s new deadline for districts to sign onto the plan.

It’s still unclear how quickly the notoriously slow-moving legislature will move on the bill. Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson has announced his support for raising the cap (though not for eliminating it) and several other Senate leaders have done the same.

But so far Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has been mum on whether he will support the cap lift. Many of the proposals included in the governor’s bill are radioactive issues for the powerful state and city teachers union, which oppose lifting the charter cap and moving up the expiration date for a provision that prohibits using student test data in teacher tenure decisions, another feature of the bill. Representatives from upstate districts, many of which have been more wary of the growth of charter schools than the city, may also be reluctant to lift the cap.

By contrast, from the city’s perspective, the governor’s legislation may not go far enough.

In November, Mayor Michael Bloomberg called on Albany to enact a wide-ranging program of reforms that go well beyond what the governor has proposed. In addition to eliminating the charter cap, the mayor wants the state to mandate that school districts use student data to evaluate teachers, eliminate seniority regulations that govern the hiring and firing of teachers, and legally allow the city to lay off excessed teachers after they have spent a year without finding a teaching position.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said today that it was possible the city would not agree to sign onto the state plan. But she said the success of the state application depends both on the city’s assent to the plan and the successful passage of legislation to bring state law in line with the grant program’s priorities.

But Tisch also said she was optimistic the legislature would pass a version of the reform bill.

“I believe everyone understands we’re at a critical juncture,” she said. “I am having a realistic attitude about the ability to move this in a time sensitive way…but I believe there is enough time.”

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