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Feds caution New York State on Race to the Top implementation

The Obama administration is warning New York State that it could lose hundreds of millions of federal dollars if it doesn’t stick to its Race to the Top promises.

The stern warning comes in conjunction with a set of U.S. Department of Education progress reports summarizing implementation successes and setbacks in each of the states that won federal Race to the Top funds in 2010. Eleven states and Washington, D.C., shared a $4.3 billion pot of prize money.

Department officials said New York was doing better than Hawaii, which last month was deemed as being at “high risk” of losing its Race to the Top funding. But they said the state was falling behind after making progress in Race to the Top’s first year.

“New York has a chance to be a national leader or a laggard and we are only interested in supporting real courage and bold leadership,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “Backtracking on reform commitments could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars for improving New York schools.”

When New York submitted its Race to the Top application in 2010, it promised an ambitious slate of reforms. Officials said they would revamp teacher evaluations, overhaul curriculum standards and assessments, build a comprehensive education data system, and turn around struggling schools. In exchange, the state would receive $700 million over four years.

In the first year after the money started flowing, the state was supposed to begin building the statewide data system, and this year, it was supposed to finalize new teacher evaluations in accordance with a state law passed to help win the Race to the Top competition. Neither project has moved forward as planned.

In August, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli rejected a contract with Wireless Generation to build the data system over concerns about the company’s relationship to News Corporation, which was embroiled in a phone-hacking scandal. Officials said the contract rejection set the data system back by about a year.

Plus, a requirement in the state’s teacher evaluation law that each district hammer out terms with its union has brought its implementation to a standstill. After negotiations fell apart in several districts, including New York City, last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that the state’s teacher evaluation law “didn’t work.” Yet state officials have made having new evaluations in place a requirement for receiving most Race to the Top funds going forward.

In a joint statement, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and State Education Commissioner John King called the characterization of New York’s policy standstill “disappointing but not discouraging.”  But they said they approved of the Obama administration’s decision to play hardball with Race to the Top winners — with threats of a funding freeze similar to the one King enacted last week to 10 districts, including New York City, that hadn’t met a state deadline for finalizing new teacher evaluations.

“The RTTT report is a reminder that the federal government will hold us to the commitments we made in our RTTT application, just as we will hold districts and educators to the commitments they made,” Tisch and King said.

Federal officials said they were working with the state to put New York back on track. But it’s hard to see how they could help. Teacher evaluations are being negotiated in local districts, where federal officials said they were not likely to get involved. A lawsuit challenging the evaluation law is making its way through the court system, which could take years. And state officials are trying again to identify a vendor to build the data system, but any contract is subject to review by the comptroller’s office.

The Obama administration issued a similar warning to Florida, saying that setbacks there had followed a strong start to implementation.