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State loses out on federal school grant
May Have Saved Jobs
'Race to the Top' contest sought ideas for reform

New York State fell far short in its bid for federal "Race to the Top" education funding on Monday, dashing hopes for a windfall from Washington that would have helped avoid extensive teacher layoffs and program cuts facing local school districts.

Of 16 finalists for first-round grants, only two states -- Tennessee, which will receive about $500 million, and Delaware, which is in line for $100 million -- were selected for funding.

In a grant process based on numerical scores, New York finished 15th out of 16 with a score of 408. That was far behind Delaware's score of 454 and Tennessee's 444.

The Race to the Top state competition is designed to reward states that are leading the way in statewide education reform.

School officials hoped for first-round funding for New York that would have tempered severe state school aid cuts that are anticipated, and prevented layoffs and program cuts in school district budgets that are now being finalized.

Buffalo, for example, envisions the elimination of as many as 680 positions, or nearly 10 percent of its work force.

Instead, the state Board of Regents will go back to the drawing board in an effort to secure one of 10 to 15 second-round grants. If it is selected, New York would be eligible for $350 million to $700 million.

New York will closely analyze the federal review of its first-round application, "and will revisit our application with a view to submitting a successful second-round plan that advances the Regents reform agenda," said State Education Commissioner David Steiner.

That application is due June 1, and awards are expected before Sept. 30. That timing makes it likely that success in the second round would allow schools in New York to restore teachers and programs after the start of the school year, but only after they have already been implemented.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said it "boggles the mind" that only two first-round grants were awarded when so many states and school districts are in fiscal crisis.

"We have problems when there has to be winners and losers," he said. "When there are losers, it always turns out to be the students who desperately need the funding."

The failure to win a first-round grant also heightens the battle in New York over two hot-button issues -- the state's charter school cap and efforts to tie teacher evaluations to the academic performance of their students.

The State Legislature recently rejected the Board of Regents' call to bolster New York's Race to the Top application by raising the state's charter school cap, which is now 200.

Steiner said Monday that lifting the cap and tying teacher evaluations to student performance are "critical to a positive outcome" in the second round of grants.

"[These are] changes that will not only strengthen our application, but will bring important benefits to education in New York State," Steiner said. "For the sake of our 3.1 million children, we cannot allow this critical opportunity to undertake vital reforms slip away."

Gov. David A. Paterson said the Legislature's failure to lift the charter school cap and tie teacher evaluation to student performance may have cost the state a first-round grant.

"We could have won," Paterson said. "The variables were there for us to make a few changes and be right up there."

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, said New York's failure to qualify for first-round funding reflects the state's reluctance to embrace reform.

"While other states took dramatic action, New York State did nothing," he said. "Our approach was to try to skirt by with the bare minimum. That didn't work. Let this be a clarion call that New York must demonstrate a commitment to real education reform or the funding will simply not follow."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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