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A (final) Cliff's notes guide to Race to the Top and New York

In a few hours, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will announce the winners of the second round of the Race to the Top grant competition. New York State education officials badly want the nearly $700 million they could win to support their reform efforts.

Here’s a roundup of our coverage of New York’s application, the policy changes that have been made in pursuit of the grant, and what winning or losing will mean for the state.

  • We begin back in March, when New York State was told that it would not collect $700 million in the first round of Race to the Top. Few expected New York to win — many were surprised it was named a finalist — and it ultimately placed second to last among the 16 finalists.
  • The two states that won, Tennessee and Delaware, were small enough that $3.4 billion remained for other states to fight over. At the time, Duncan said he expected between 10 and 15 states to win in round two. New York education officials responded to the loss by calling for the state legislature to improve the state’s round-two chances by voting in a new teacher evaluation system and raising the charter school cap.
  • In May, the state and the state teachers union reached an agreement on a new teacher evaluation system that would base 40 percent of a teacher’s score be based on student achievement — 20 percent from state tests and 20 percent from “local assessments.” City officials were not thrilled at the prospect of having to negotiate the local assessment portion with the city teachers union. Many union members were anxious as well.
  • State legislators also spent much of May locked in negotiations over how to raise the state’s cap on the number of charter schools allowed to open. An aborted attempt to raise the cap in January was widely cited as one reason New York didn’t win in Race to the Top’s first round. At the beginning of May, the State Senate introduced a bill that would raise the cap to 460 to 200 and require the schools to enroll more special education students and students learning English. Charter school advocates hailed the bill, but the state teachers union said it glossed over their concerns about oversight and accountability. The bill passed the Senate by a wide margin, but city union chief Michael Mulgrew insisted it would go no further.
  • For the rest of the month, New Yorkers were treated to a heavy advertising battle between the teachers union and charter school advocates. Both sides took to the airwaves, each urging voters to ignore the other. The charter school lobby spent millions of dollars on its campaign, which included heavy online advertising and door-to-door picketing.
  • Negotiations between the two factions began again at the end of May, focusing on how charters should be opened and monitored, how many special education students and students learning English they enroll, and how they share space in city district school buildings. The two sides hammered out a deal in the early morning hours of May 28, and both the Assembly and the Senate passed the new charter cap lift bill that day.
  • The new law lifted the cap on charters to 460 over the next four years; created a new RFP process for opening them; required charters to enroll needy students in comparable numbers to nearby district schools; banned for-profit companies from operating charters; allows the state comptroller to audit the schools; and creates new rules governing how charters share space. But questions about how exactly some of the provisions would be put into practice remain.
  • The state submitted its second-round application, incorporating the evaluation deal and charter cap lift, on June 1, and made the application public an hour later. The state’s proposal asks for a total of $696 million in grant funds, down from $830 million state officials asked for in the first round. In the first round, the application suffered from what judges deemed a lack of support from the state’s teachers unions. But this round, the application picked up greater teachers union support.
  • At the end of July, Duncan announced that for the second time, New York reached the final stage of competition. This time, federal officials named 19 finalists and estimated that 10 to 15 of those states will win grant funds. Together, the 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.
  • If New York wins, the money would go to boost four main goals for reform, according to the application: writing new tests and curriculum based on the new national common core standards; building new databases to track students from the time they enter school through college; using the new teacher evaluation system to improve the quality of classroom teaching; and overhauling low-performing schools, often with the help of charters. Many of the details of the application are based on expanding programs that were launched in New York City, often to great controversy, under Klein.
  • If the state loses the competition, it’s unclear how state education officials’ reform efforts will fare. Duncan has said he expects even losing states to press forward with their reform agendas. But Tisch warned that the state’s financial situation is so dire that state goals will be jeopardized without an influx of federal funds.
  • Two weeks ago, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch traveled to Washington, D.C. with State Education Commissioner David Steiner and Deputy Education Commissioner John King to make a final pitch directly to competition judges. In an effort to bolster the state’s case that its proposal will have a broad impact, the three were joined by city schools Chancellor Joel Klein and teachers union President Michael Mulgrew. Tisch, Klein and Mulgrew have all said the presentation went well but are making no predictions. “We will see,” Tisch said.

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