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Tisch: State reform agenda dependent on Race to the Top win

Even as they celebrated New York’s Race to the Top finalist status today, state education officials warned that reforms won’t happen without a win.

In recent months, state officials have committed to changing teacher evaluations, creating new databases to track students’ grades and scores, revamping standards, and upgrading tests. But those changes can’t happen unless New York takes home the $700 million it asked for in its Race to the Top application, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told me today.

“The reform agenda is very contingent upon an infusion of these federal dollars that are earmarked for reform efforts,” Tisch said.

For a cash-strapped education department in a state whose budget is now nearly four months late, it’s not clear where the money to fund costly reform initiatives will come from without federal backing. And New York is not alone among states whose budgets may not support the changes they have promised or even enacted into law.

But speaking to reporters today, Duncan said that states should carry out their reform plans even if they don’t receive Race to the Top funds.

“Race to the Top is an important pot of money, but there are many other sources coming from us,” Duncan said, referring to another $7 billion the department plans to make available in the coming months. “And obviously thinking through, if these are truly priorities, even in tough budget times, how you’ll help to reallocate local resources behind these efforts is hugely important.”

Tisch said that she agreed that states should not be dependent on federal dollars. “But we need to understand, the New York State taxpayers are quite clearly tapped out, and they are looking to the federal government for help,” she said.

“I think that New York State really did significantly well in terms of meeting [Race to the Top’s requirements] and I believe that we can, should and will be rewarded,” she said. “But make no mistake — dollar amounts matter.”

Duncan also praised New York today for its efforts to bring state policy into line with federal reform goals. “I think New York’s come a heck of a long way,” he said.

But other states also boosted their odds by changing education policies, he said. The 19 finalists named today all submitted applications that scored more than 400 points on the federal education department’s 500-point evaluation rubric. (You can read the competition guidelines and rubric here.) Overall, the average score of finalists in the second round was 25 points higher than the first round finalists’ average score, Duncan said.

Duncan has said that in the second round he will likely fund the grant proposals of between 10 and 15 winning states. Together, the 19 finalists have asked for a total of $6.2 billion in grant funding — almost twice as much as the $3.4 billion in the Race to the Top fund that remains to be awarded.

“My goal is not to fund every state,” Duncan said. “My goal is to fund as many strong applications as we can.”

In the competition’s next step, New York will send a team to Washington to present the state’s application to a panel of judges during the week of August 9. Tisch said that she would announce her appointments to that team tomorrow.

As in the first round, Duncan said today that the presentations will be an important part of the final judging, as reviewers gauge whether state education leaders have the capacity to put the plans they proposed into practice. During the first round, New York was one of three finalist states who lost points in the interview round, largely because judges questioned whether proposed reforms would reach every school district in the state.

(Update: this post has been changed to clarify the jump in average points between the first and second round.)

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