- President Barack Obama, March 10, 2009
"Legislative changes are currently not needed."
- Spokesperson for Gov. David Paterson, Oct. 26. 2009
Last March, the President of the United States outlined, in detail, his vision for states to make education reform changes to "race to the top," as he put it. Included in the just-signed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was a $4-plus billion pot of money to be used as an incentive fund for states to change their laws to reflect the President's agenda for education reform. States, not the federal government, are the places that most affect education policy. Knowing this, the Obama Administration created this competitive Race to the Top fund to spur them to change.
Many states have responded favorably to the President by amending their laws, including raising their caps on the number of charter schools. New York is not among them and has no plans to do so, according to Governor Paterson's office, which made that clear yesterday to the New York Post (here).
This is the same Governor, incidentally, who is warning of the state running out of cash to pay its bills. Me thinks New York could use some of that Race to the Top money -- ASAP -- and it shouldn't risk losing out to other states who are taking this program way more seriously. Moreover, New York officials continue to confuse the state's eligibility for applying to the feds, with its competitiveness for a grant award. New York may be eligible, but its competitive standing is dubious.
Politics at Work?
Since sound educational policy and fiscal facts do not seem to be influencing New York's do-nothing approach, I proffer three possibilities with the common denominator of politics at work:
1) Gov. Paterson is not interested in responding to, nor doing the bidding of, President Obama, the man who ostentatiously "dissed" him when his unnamed political operatives made clear their preference is for Paterson not to run for election next year. Instead, the President's preference was for Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to run for Governor. One diss deserves another, perhaps.
2) Gov. Paterson is courting the powerful state teacher unions, who do not like charter schools. Since the Governor is trying to cut state school aid, appeasing the unions in other areas may make sense in his mind. This theory was openly speculated upon by Bronx Democratic Assemblyman, Michael Benjamin: "I think he's running for re-election. He doesn't want to do anything that would jeopardize [teacher union] support -- and changing the current state law to make the state far more open to the advancement of charter schools would anger NYSUT and the UFT." It's rare when an elected official says the obvious regarding interest group politics. However, the Governor should remember that the state teachers unions last year endorsed candidate Obama's Democratic primary opponent.
3) The fix is in with the feds. It could be that New York's sizable congressional delegation, headed by the powerful U.S. Senator, Chuck Schumer, will see to it that New York gets its share of Race to the Top funds, no matter what. While President Obama doesn't have to try to win New York state in a re-election (he'll have it anyway), he does need Sen. Schumer, who I predict will be the next Senate Majority Leader sooner rather than later. The risk in relying on this supposed fail-safe is there is no sign the U.S. Department of Education has diluted its program standards and doing so would be an embarrassing cave-in. See also possibility #1: the President may not be interested in helping the Governor politically with a grant, which is all the more reason for New York to compete on the merits.
Politics is an art, not a science. So any of these three factors could be in play, or none of them. Gov. Paterson's non-action on the charter cap and other education reforms could be one of simple timing; that is, he wants to focus on dealing with the state's budget deficit now and propose reforms later, in January. I hope that much is true. In addition, he's getting bad advice from the state Education Department, which also is in no hurry to advocate for a charter cap lift.
The Education Department is the last place the Governor should be heeding. It's not accountable to him and doesn't care about him or any other Governor. Rather, the Department reports to the Board of Regents, who are appointed by the Legislature, not the Governor. The wrinkle, however, is this: the Governor ultimately must sign off on the state's Race to the Top application, so he's actually in the driver's seat--if he wants to be--instead of State Ed.
To make charter schools or any education reform viable requires executive leadership. We are getting that from President Obama. We also got such from Governor Paterson's two immediate predecessors who bucked the establishment and respectively made charter schools a reality and doubled the cap. He should follow their example of leadership in this area. There is still time, but it's running out.
for The Chalkboard
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