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City's delays temper Arne Duncan's praise for New York State

Speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan suggested that New York City look upstate for help fulfilling its school reform promises.

After early difficulties, the state is now doing an admirable job carrying out the changes it promised when it won Race to the Top funds from the federal Race to the Top program, Duncan said, reiterating praise he extended when the state reached a deal about teacher evaluations with its main union in February.

But New York City still has not adopted new evaluations, costing it this year’s federal School Improvement Grants. Last week the city became the last of 10 eligible districts across the state to remain cut off from the funds.

Duncan said New York City’s failure to adopt new evaluations was “obviously the big issue” in the state but that it could be overcome.

“If nine out of 10 districts can figure this thing out together, I’ll expect that hopefully they’ll follow suit,” Duncan said about the city.

The city is not hinging next year’s federal funds on new evaluations. Instead, it has applied to use a more aggressive school reform strategy, known as turnaround, that requires closing and reopening schools.

State Education Commissioner John King said this spring that he would decide on whether to grant millions of dollars of federal funding to support the turnaround efforts by early June. That announcement is now in limbo: A state official said the city Department of Education has delayed the news in order to review the details of the applications it submitted. Those applications explained exactly what the city was promising in exchange for the funds.

“The city is still negotiating language in documents they’re submitting,” the state official said.

City officials did not respond to requests for comment about the delay. The Department of Education is embroiled in arbitration with the city teachers union over labor rules at the 24 turnaround schools.

Duncan panned the ongoing city-union conflict. “I’ll say when adults fight, quite frankly, kids lose,” he said.

But he had positive things to say about the state as a whole. “I think New York is actually going in the right direction,” Duncan said. “Obviously … it’s got some really significant challenges, but I’ve seen in just the last month or two a huge amount of progress there.”

And other officials aimed a positive spotlight on New York City. Steven Robinson, President Obama’s top education aide at the White House, said that he had recently visited a city school that was succeeding at melding personalized learning and parent engagement, focuses of the latest round of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top funding competition. The school, I.S. 228 in Brooklyn, is using the School of One program to structure some instruction and keying parents into daily updates about their child’s progress.

In his 15-minute briefing, Duncan laid out a broad policy agenda for the Obama Administration that covered everything from their focus on improving the quality of its early childhood HeadStart program to efforts to make college more affordable. A low interest rate for a federal student loan program will double on July 1 if Congress can not agree on a way to keep the rate at 3.4 percent.

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