To most of the state legislature, the education lexicon begins and ends with annual debates on dividing the school aid pie in the state budget; first, by how much more school aid there will be, then how it gets distributed among the state's geographic regions. This annual dance often crowds out discussion of much else.
Assemblyman Hoyt, who represents the 144th district comprising part of Buffalo and neighboring Grand Island, wants to get New York beyond the annual school aid debate to enact real education reforms.
He may have just the vehicle in which to accomplish this important objective.
Reforming education policy, including strengthening charter schools, is now inexorably tied to President Barack Obama's education reform agenda as never before, with the $5 billion Stimulus Bill program, Race to the Top. The two previous presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, favored charter schools and provided crucial planning and implementation funds to enable them to open successfully under the Charter School Program, Title X of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. However, this program provides little incentive for a state to have a charter school law (10 states still do not) and, more importantly, it does not encourage states that do have laws to be effective ones.
The Obama Administration is now changing that by using new federal funding to reward states on a competitive basis for reforming education, including having effective charter school laws, while also encouraging states to make positive reforms in the coming months.
These incentives already are having a positive effect in other states, as Tennessee and Illinois have raised their caps on charter schools, while in California, Gov. Schwarzenegger is calling its legislature into special session to position the state to compete for Race to the Top funds.
Assemblyman Hoyt has written a letter to Gov. David Paterson to do the same by proposing education reforms for the legislature to adopt. Specifically, Hoyt raised the two prohibitive laws: the existing cap on the number of charter schools, and the prohibition on using student test scores to evaluate teacher performance for awarding tenure.
More broadly, Hoyt writes that additional federal Race to the Top funds will be vital to make up for the burgeoning state budget deficit, which likely will prompt funding reductions in education, and to combat the state's abysmal high school graduation rates particularly in urban areas.
Hoyt has a tall order. Gov. Paterson and Regents Chancellor, Merryl Tisch, both have argued that New York already is well-positioned to compete for and secure Race to the Top funds.
What if they are wrong?
"New York should be out front on this issue," Hoyt said in a statement last week. "We should not be struggling to even become competitive for these needed funds, and yet we are."
Charter schools in New York do not receive equitable funding and get no funding for buildings. These are key criteria that will be used by the U.S. Department of Education as it determines awards for Race to the Top funds. Furthermore, the charter cap will be reached in a year, or sooner for NYC Chancellor-approved schools. And, the funding inequity for charters was exacerbated this year when the state froze the charter funding formula for the first time since the law was enacted ten years ago.
None of this will impress the Feds, as they decide which states are most deserving of hundreds of millions to individual states.
State policymakers, beginning with the Governor, should not risk the loss of potential Race to the Top funds for New York. They should heed Assemblyman Hoyt's admonishment to take important stops now to show that New York is a leader in education reform, rather than a bystander. Otherwise, watch for other states to show us up in the months ahead.
for The Chalkboard
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