Saturday, February 20, 2010

Race to the Top Failure Recounted

The old saying, "success has many fathers while failure is an orphan," does not apply to New York's failure to get a strong Race to the Top bill enacted last month.

Looking back, this failure has at least a couple of major culprits; Governor David Paterson is not fairly among them.

The New York Times series of highly critical articles on Gov. Paterson this week goes too far in its assessment of his role in the state's failure to enact a strong Race to the Top bill to competitively position New York for new federal education funds (here).

Gotham Schools reporter, Maura Walz, on Friday challenged the Times' assessment (here) by retracing the many factors leading to the state legislature not even voting on a Race to the Top bill.

RttT Money Not Worth Reforms to Teacher Unions
While New York State may have been slow to realize changes were needed for Race to the Top, that was not ultimately a factor in its demise. My own belief, expressed on The Chalkboard (e.g., here & here) even before the failure, is the teacher unions, UFT and NYSUT, simply did not view the extra federal dollars as worth the price of adopting reforms in public education that the Obama administration seeks through its Race to the Top competition (see also here and Time magazine's account here). Charter school changes are only one of a series of education reforms promoted by Race to the Top. Others include repeal of the ban on using student test data for making tenure decisions; school intervention strategies including takeover of chronically low-performing schools; streamline the teacher disciplinary process ("3020-a" reform); and other reforms (here).

In fact, charter school "opponents" confirmed this view in Gotham's story yesterday:

"Another camp of charter opponents argue that the expansion of charter schools would come at too great a cost to make the $700 million in grant money even worth it."

While it is not explicit this "camp" is one of the teacher unions, this would not be a new stance for them. Back in the spring of 1998, then-Gov. George Pataki offered to restore millions of dollars in item vetoes he made to the legislature's adopted 1998-99 state budget on the condition that the unions stand down in their opposition to his proposed charter school legislation. The unions refused and the item vetoes stuck. It was not until after Pataki's re-election later that year that a compromise Charter Schools Act was adopted, which was accompanied by a legislative pay hike.

With respect to charter schools, the idea that all the unions wanted to do was require more accountability and special ed students, reiterated in part by a NYSUT spokesman to Gotham, is patently absurd. Those issues were merely union soundbites in their attempt to discredit charters and defeat any real increase in the cap (e.g., here). Charter schools already are subject to rigorous accountability and transparency provisions both in statute and administratively. Codifying administrative requirements also was made part of the Governor's Race to the Top legislation (S.6470), which was not considered.

A Second Chance to Get it Right
Ultimately, the failure to enact a strong Race to the Top bill is the democratic system itself, that properly demands that many factions come to consensus, and which by design is difficult to achieve on a controversial subject. Accordingly, the process is set up to often lead to stalemate. But, in this case doing nothing was preferable to doing the wrong thing by crippling charter schools through a sham Race to the Top bill backed by charter opponents.

If New York fails to win a Race to the Top grant in April, it will get another chance in June with the second federal application process. With looming education cuts for next school year more palpable by then, hopefully the parties can strip away the rhetoric and expand charter school opportunities. This could be accomplished by cleanly raising the charter cap while providing a congenial process for locating charters in district space in New York City, which should include finally providing charters equitable facilities funding.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard
(see me Twitter @ PeterMurphy26
& get "Chalkboard Nycsa" on Facebook)

Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.