Feds threaten funding as New York mulls changes to teacher evaluations

New York might lose out on $300 million if last-minute negotiations on teacher and principal evaluations untie Common Core test scores from final ratings, federal education officials warned Tuesday.

That’s how much New York is due to receive to implement a new evaluation system as part of its participation in Race to the Top, a competitive grant program launched by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009. New York won a total of $700 million after legislators allowed more charter schools to open, moved toward adopting the Common Core standards, and approved new teacher evaluation requirements.

But students’ poor performance on the first years of Common Core state tests, and a rocky rollout of the new teacher evaluations, have increased pressure on lawmakers to discount those scores. Ann Whalen, who oversees implementation of Race to the Top at the U.S. Department of Education, said that would “undermine four years of hard work by the state’s educators, school leaders and stakeholders.”

“Breaking promises made to students, educators and parents and moving backward on these commitments—including stopping the progress the state has made to improve student achievement—puts at risk up to $292 million of New York’s Race to the Top grant for improving schools and supporting their educators and students,” Whalen said in a statement.

Her warning is the first official word that Race to the Top funding may be on the line, though state education officials have repeatedly warned of the possibility as they pushed lawmakers not to retreat from the new teacher evaluations and Common Core standards.

Whalen’s statement comes as state lawmakers are negotiating ways to change the evaluation law so that teachers wouldn’t be held accountable for student test scores for up to two years. Under New York’s 2010 teacher evaluation law, student test scores can count for up to 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. Teachers rated “ineffective” on that part of their evaluation for two years in a row can be terminated, which has prompted the state teachers union to lobby for a delay until teachers are more familiar with the new standards.

It’s unclear if New York state has actually received all of the money that is on the line. The state told federal officials last year that it was planning to spend a total of $87.3 million of its Race to the Top allotment through the end of the next school year. Most of those funds have been set aside for districts that won grants from the state to boost teacher and principal quality (New York City won a grant for $12 million).

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been directly involved in the talks and said on Tuesday that he was “cautiously optimistic” about a deal, even with the legislative session set to end Thursday. A spokesman for the governor did not respond to Whalen’s concerns about New York violating its Race to the Top agreement, though a source familiar with Cuomo’s position in the negotiations said “the governor would never accept a proposal that would put Race to the Top funds at risk.”

Assembly member Catherine Nolan, who has proposed a bill to delay tying the new Common Core standards to evaluations for this school year and next school year, said she wasn’t concerned about the state losing its federal funding.

“I am comfortable Commissioner [John] King can resolve the federal bureaucracy’s issues and still respond to the legitimate concerns of parents, teachers and principals,” Nolan said in a statement.

It’s not the first time that federal officials has threatened to pull Race to the Top funds from New York. Two years ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the fact that school districts still hadn’t implemented evaluation plans “could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.” Most districts, under pressure from Cuomo, ended up implementing new plans by the end of the school year. Later in the year, Duncan reprimanded New York City, the only district that failed to implement an evaluation plan in 2012.

A spokesman for state teachers union also suggested that Duncan would not actually pull Race to the Top funds if New York postpones using state test scores in evaluations. The spokesman pointed out that Duncan has told states that they could delay using state tests on evaluations when applying to opt out of some parts of the federal No Child Left Behind law—though that law is unrelated to Race to the Top. 

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