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Did the Times hold Paterson too accountable on Race to the Top?

One element of the New York Times’ long-awaited appraisal of Governor David Paterson’s governing style stuck out to us today.

In its lead, the story blames the governor for New York’s failure to pass reform legislation to sharpen the state’s application for federal Race to the Top funds:

[L]ast month, with the state facing a deadline to apply for $700 million in federal education aid, the governor waited until the last minute to try to bring lawmakers together to agree on a plan. His efforts failed, leaving the application in doubt.

This “blame-Paterson” narrative rests on the idea that a stronger governor could have successfully corralled all of the competing interests in the battle over state education reform, brought them to a compromise and forced the legislature to pass a bill.

But it’s also an overly simplistic explanation for the state’s failure to act, sources told GothamSchools today.

A more nuanced telling of the downfall of the state’s Race to the Top legislation involves decisions made by Paterson, to be sure. But it would also bring in a number of other, interlocking factors, all of which may become relevant again this spring or summer if the legislature re-visits the charter cap issue in advance of the grant competition’s second round deadline in June.

Here are several alternate theories for why the legislature failed to act:

1) All New York State politicians, including but not limited to Paterson, may have waited too long to even begin negotiating over key points in the state’s application.

Throughout the end of last summer and into the fall, the prevailing notion in New York was that the state was well-positioned to win Race to the Top funds without any changes in state law. State education officials, including Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, repeatedly expressed confidence that New York was already in a competitive position. Paterson even claimed in August that federal officials had assured him that the state was in a strong position. A constant stream of confident statements convinced many politicians and officials that swift action wasn’t required.

“I would say that there was, at all levels of state government, in the legislature, but also in the executive, too late an appreciation for the stakes and a focus on what it would take in order for New York State to be competitive,” said James Merriman, chief executive of the New York City Charter School Center.

“We received from all quarters a message for months that New York didn’t need to do anything, no action was necessary, and that New York was a cinch and a lock to win,” a charter advocate said. “And that really didn’t change until Thanksgiving.”

Contrast that evolution with its parallel in California, a state with its own fair share of tension between the governor and legislature. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger first put forth legislation designed to boost his state’s Race to the Top competitiveness last August.

Like New York, the California state legislature also had dueling bills, one supported by the governor and another supported by the teachers union. Unlike in New York, that disagreement surfaced in the legislature before the start of the new year, and Schwarzenegger was able to broker a compromise with state Democrats that passed the legislature and was signed into law at the beginning of January.

2) New York’s Race to the Top legislation may have floundered because of wider dysfunction in Albany. Paterson certainly has a role in that story — it’s no secret that Paterson and state legislators don’t get along — but the Senate’s chaotic dynamics also played a large part in the legislation’s demise.

Democrats have a slim two-vote majority in the Senate, but their hopes of passing the Silver/Sampson version of the charter cap lift bill were dashed when two Democratic Senators, Craig Johnson and Ruben Diaz, Sr., sided with the Republicans to support Paterson’s version. Rather than allow Republicans in the Senate to steer Paterson’s version to passage, Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson simply refused to bring a bill to the floor.

3) Another theory posits that Paterson took the wrong legislative strategy towards winning the legislature over to a cap lift. In other states, such as Michigan, reform bills included a wide menu of changes that, even after being thinned out through legislative bargaining, still made significant changes to state law.

That was the strategy advocated in New York in October by Assemblyman Sam Hoyt and Senator Jeffrey Klein, who introduced a broad reform bill with the intent of aiming high to ensure that a strong bill survived legislative negotiations.

By contrast, Paterson gambled all of his chips on the charter cap lift and introduced reform legislation that addressed only that, and not other contentious issues such as increasing funding for charters and granting them public facilities space. When negotiations on the cap lift faltered, there was little to fall back on.

4) Blaming the state’s charter cap inaction solely on Paterson’s political failings also ignores the real, substantive disagreements over whether or how charter schools should expand in New York. It’s not clear that anyone, even a stronger governor, could have bridged the divide that continues to exist between charter supporters and many legislators skeptical of the way the schools have grown, particularly in New York City.

“There were a lot of legislators who had questions” about the wisdom of letting charter schools in the state grow unfettered by new regulations, said state teachers union spokesman Carl Korn. “And our work in this area suggests that there are reasons for those questions.”

Some charter school critics are in favor of lifting the cap, but only if there is greater oversight to ensure that charters serve greater number of high-needs students. But their proposals for doing so, embodied in Silver and Sampson’s bill, prompt angry responses from charter school advocates, who argue that additional restrictions will effectively kill the charter school movement.

Another camp of charter opponents argue that the expansion of charter schools would come at too great a cost to make the $700 million in grant money even worth it.

One theory, raised by observers on each side of the divide, involves the city’s practice of placing charter schools in district school buildings, often in space-sharing arrangements with traditional public schools that have prompted extremely loud public protest. Legislators, hearing from angry constituents about charter schools they say are encroaching on their neighborhood schools, are unlikely to sign off on any kind of cap lift until the city determines a less-contentious way of siting charters.

The city knows this is a problem and is currently trying to figure out the best way of resolving it. One of the first tasks assigned to Lenny Speiller, the Department of Education’s new lobbyist, is to come up with a strategy to build support in Albany for the city’s charter school siting policies.

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