Is New York Eligible for Education Stimulus Funds?

President Obama discusses Race to the Top

President Obama discusses Race to the Top

The Obama Administration wants to encourage education reform. As an incentive, it's offering states $4.3 billion in stimulus grants that can be used for a number of things, including better data systems and turning around low-performing schools.

But when the proposed guidelines were released recently, they triggered a big debate over whether New York is even eligible.

The stimulus grants are part of a program called Race to the Top. They’re highly competitive, with only about a dozen states expected to receive funding next year. That’s where the controversy comes in. The U.S. Department of Education has proposed that in order to be eligible, a state can’t have any barriers to using student achievement data, “for the purpose of teacher and principal evaluation.”

Here’s the problem: last year, Albany enacted a law preventing districts from using test scores in teacher tenure decisions. And that automatically disqualifies the state's application for Race to the Top, according to Dan Weisberg, Vice President and general counsel for the New Teacher Project, a non-profit dedicated to teacher quality.

Even though the state’s law specifically refers to teacher tenure, he says that’s the same thing as an evaluation. "What you’re doing at the teacher tenure decision is evaluating the teacher’s performance and deciding whether they are entitled to lifelong job protection."

Weisberg also notes that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan singled out New York, California and Wisconsin for having a "firewall" in their use of data. But State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch says the law on the books is simply about tenure.

"There is nothing going forward in New York State law that will preclude teacher evaluations using student assessments and student achievement as a parameter by which to define success."

Teachers say test scores alone aren’t always a fair gauge of whether a student is learning. Their union lobbied heavily for the state law in response to a proposal by the Bloomberg Administration to link tenure to scores. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein had argued test data could show which teachers are most effective when comparing similar classrooms of students. And Obama’s Education Secretary seems to agree, so long as it’s not the sole criteria in granting tenure or evaluating a teacher.

Tisch says she’s been talking with federal officials about the state’s application for Race to the Top funds. If awarded a grant - which could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars - she says the state would use the money for upgrading a data system linking individual teachers to students. This could then be used to figure out which teachers are most effective, and who could use more professional development. Tisch says the state also wants to use the funds for improving low-performing schools. The U-S Department of Education won’t weigh in on the debate publicly. But Tisch notes that the law barring test scores from being used to determine tenure will expire next June, just as the federal dollars start flowing.

It's unclear whether the union would lobby to keep the law. The United Federation of Teachers told WNYC it believes that "basing teacher tenure decisions on one year of high-stakes tests is fair to neither students or teachers. This is a much more complicated question and shouldn’t be considered until we are sure that our tests really measure student achievement and really measure the contribution of a teacher to that student’s achievement."

But former U.F.T. President Randi Weingarten, who's now moved over to head the American Federation of Teachers, has praised the Obama Administration for taking a more collaborative attitude toward teachers. As the Obama Administration continues to press its reform agenda - including the use of data - it will be interesting to see whether the union fights or embraces these changes.

Meanwhile, New York City intends to apply for a separate $650 million pot of federal funds for local school districts, the guidelines for which are expected to be announced this week. The state law shouldn't be an issue, though, as these grants are for developing, implementing, or expanding a wide number of educational innovations and Secretary Duncan has praised the Bloomberg administration.