Confident state ed officials press forward on Race to the Top

Brushing aside criticism that current state laws could jeopardize New York’s chances at Race to the Top Funds, state officials say they will enter the contest in round one.

On Monday, the State Education Department will release a comprehensive plan to overhaul teacher training, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said today. Tisch called the proposal a “very aggressive package” that will be a major element of New York’s Race to the Top application.

The strength of a state’s teacher training program is a heavily weighted component of the final Race to the Top criteria unveiled today. At a speech in New York City last month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for states to better prepare new teachers.

But even with a new teacher training initiative, it remains to be seen whether two controversial state laws — one that bans the use of student test scores in teacher tenure decisions and another that caps the number of charter schools allowed in the state — could derail the state’s application.

In a conference call with reporters today, Duncan emphasized that states with such policies will be at a distinct disadvantage compared to states that are “vigorously challenging the status quo” by eliminating such caps and barriers. Some states are changing their laws to improve their Race to the Top chances, but New York has not.

Duncan also made clear that he wants states to use teacher evaluations to make personnel decisions. “These evaluations have to drive decisions about tenure and placement,” he said. And he said states whose local districts have policies, as New York City does, prohibiting student test scores from being used in teacher evaluations would “put themselves at competitive disadvantage.”

But Tisch insisted, as she has before, that the state’s current teacher evaluation practices hew to the spirit of Race to the Top’s requirements. “There is no barrier to using student data in teacher evaluations in the state of New York,” she said, adding that the state law applied only to teacher tenure decisions. “We evaluate teachers on the basis of student achievement every year in New York.”

Much of New York’s hope in the competition rides on the promise of the strong reputations of Tisch, new state education commissioner David Steiner and new deputy education commissioner John King, as well as that of a charter school movement considered one of the strongest in America.

Tisch has frequently pointed out that state education leaders’ priorities match the Obama administration’s goals on issues ranging from teacher training to raising academic standards and overhauling testing. Changing the tenure law and lifting the charter cap might not be necessary, officials have argued.

But critics say that new leadership and vision may not be enough to spring New York ahead of the pack in a highly competitive field.

State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who last month introduced a bill designed explicitly to align state law with Race to the Top’s priorities, said it is too risky to leave the laws unchanged.

“If in fact [the tenure law] is interpreted as not meeting the criteria that Arne Duncan set forth, it would be tragic if we lost that money,” Hoyt said. “So why risk it? Let’s address it now. So then there isn’t any risk involved at all.”

Hoyt’s bill, which the Assembly and Senate have not yet taken up, calls for broad changes in state education law, including an immediate repeal of the teacher tenure law and a lift of the charter cap.

Joe Williams, head of the lobbying group Democrats for Education Reform, said New York will have to change its laws to compete against states that have already changed theirs. But he said he is not confident that there is political will to overhaul state law.

“It seems like the mood is just to go with what we’ve got and to put our trust in Steiner and Tisch,” he said. “And I love what they’re talking about with teacher training, but I just can’t imagine that we’re going to win with all of these other states making big moves.”