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Even as a finalist, NY still a Race to the Top longshot, officials say

New York’s education officials and politicians reacted with shock to news today that their dark-horse state was named a finalist in the competition for Race to the Top funds.

But the unexpected good news did little to instill confidence among lawmakers, who cautioned that the state is still a long-shot for a win.

Many officials and advocates said the state legislature’s failure to act on several key elements of the application — namely, its cap on charter schools and teacher tenure laws — could hobble the state’s chances at the badly-needed funds. And they urged Albany to enact those changes immediately, before the state makes its final pitch to the grant program’s judges in two weeks. The winners of the competition will be announced in April.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said she was “thrilled” that the state’s application, which centered on proposals to build a new data tracking system and to overhaul how teachers are trained and certified, was judged strong enough to make the finals. But she added a note of caution.

“Now we need to make sure that the possibility doesn’t slip away,” Tisch said.

The city Department of Education, the teachers union and a variety of advocates praised the Regents and State Education Commissioner David Steiner for their work in crafting the application. Throughout the fall and winter, the Board of Regents voted to link teacher certification to student performance, greatly expand a statewide student data tracking system and outlined a policy to replace the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.

But changes the Regents asked the legislature to make, including the charter cap lift, were stymied.

With Governor David Paterson embroiled in ethics scandals and members of his administration leaving, Albany’s political paralysis has intensified. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg nevertheless called on the legislature to act swiftly.

“[W]e’ve got to work very hard with the legislature and say, you know, we’ve got some life here, but we’re on life support,” Bloomberg told reporters today.

Bloomberg and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have lobbied hard for the elimination of the charter cap and provisions that would allow the city to use test scores not only to grant tenure, but also to fire teachers and change the order in which teachers are laid off in budget crises. Both have argued that these changes are necessary to maximize the state’s Race to the Top changes.

“[W]e haven’t won a dime yet,” Klein said in a statement. “And we’re realistic about what the State needs to do to win this race.”

Promoting the growth of charter schools and using data to evaluate teachers are two Obama administration priorities, and and taken together they would have counted for nearly a fifth of the points on the state’s application. Nearly 50 anonymous judges reviewed states’ applications, scoring each one using a rubric with a 500 point scale. The 16 finalists announced today all received scores of above 400, federal officials said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said today that applications were evaluated on a wide variety of factors and no single element had killed a state’s chances.

“Every state had relative strengths and every state had relative weaknesses,” Duncan said in a conference call with reporters. “Charters were never going to be the determining factor. We’ve said that from day one.”

The contest did have one significant eligibility requirement: states could not have any legal barriers to using student test scores to evaluate teachers or principals. New York’s tenure law, set to expire this summer, led observers early on to question whether the state would even be eligible. Even after it became clear that New York would be able to submit an application, many suspected the provision would hurt the state’s chances.

The charter cap issue has created even more headaches. Days before the Race to the Top application deadline in January, Governor David Paterson and the state legislature became tangled in a debate over whether and how to raise the state’s charter cap and in the end failed to take any action at all.

The state teachers union, which resisted a wholesale lift of the charter cap, argued that the state’s advance to finalist confirmed their argument that New York was competitive without significant changes to state law.

“We believed from the very start of this process that New York possessed the basic building blocks to put forward a very competitive application,” union head Richard Ianuzzi said in a statement.

New York Charter School Association policy director Peter Murphy said the state was now in a kind of “Catch-22” situation — New York could risk receiving partial funding for some reforms but miss the opportunity for a full grant because of the application’s weaknesses.

“It really behooves the state sooner rather than later to show we’re serious,” Murphy said. “I think the worst outcome would be to get a pittance of a grant when the full opportunity was lost.”

New York’s Race to the Top application asks for $831 million over four years to fund 30 projects. That’s $130 million more than the USDOE has indicated large states like New York are likely to receive, though federal officials indicated that their estimates are non-binding. In January, Paterson included $750 million in Race to the Top funds in his proposed state budget in anticipation of a win, a move that Duncan called “a leap of faith.”

USDOE spokesman Justin Hamilton said that the department would hold budget meetings with winners to determine how much money will actually be given to each state to put its plan into action. The winners of the first round of competition will not be eligible to apply for new funds in round two, Hamilton said.

When the winners are announced, federal officials plan to release all states’ scores and judges’ comments about each application’s strengths and weaknesses. However, finalists will not see their scores before their presentations, Hamilton said, meaning state officials will not know precisely what areas have weakened their application as they prepare their final pitches.

State education officials have not yet determined which representatives from New York will travel to Washington to make the final pitch to judges, state education department spokesman Tom Dunn said.

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