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New York lags in 'race' for fed education funds

Nancy Febberaro, a third grade teacher at the

Nancy Febberaro, a third grade teacher at the South Bay Elementary School, sets ups her new classroom, Monday, at Our Lady of Grace Church in West Babylon. (Feb. 22, 2010) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

New York State scored second-to-last among 16 finalists in the federal "Race to the Top" contest - signaling that the state's application for hundreds of millions in public-school dollars faces trouble.

Only two states, Delaware and Tennessee - neither with an urban center in the nation's top 15 in population - won money in first-round results announced Monday in Washington.

Like other big states, New York can reapply by June 1 for up to $700 million in school-reform grants. But critical reviews of New York's application released Monday point to major weaknesses, as well as some strengths, in the state's plans for turning around failing schools.

Among weaknesses listed by reviewers: Vagueness in the state Education Department's plan for improving teacher training, and refusal by nearly 40 percent of the state's teacher unions to sign on to the application.

Reviewers also noted that New York State sets tight limits on the number of charter schools allowed to operate within its borders - a restriction widely viewed as an obstacle to reform. In January, an attempt to raise that cap from 200 schools to at least 400 failed in the Democratic-dominated State Legislature.

"I would have been very surprised if we'd made the first cut, and I still hope we'll make the second cut," said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who is Long Island's representative to the state Board of Regents.

The Regents had pushed for raising the cap, warning that failure to do so might cost the state sorely needed federal dollars.

But Richard Iannuzzi, president of the influential New York State United Teachers union, said his organization would continue to insist that any expansion of charter schools be accompanied by tighter controls over their finances. Iannuzzi also deplored the decision by federal officials not to award any first-round grants to states with large city school systems that are in greatest need of reform.

"To me, that just contradicts the goals of the Obama Administration," said the union leader, who formerly taught in Central Islip.

"Race to the Top" is President Barack Obama's biggest educational initiative, and is aimed at prodding states into raising school achievement. Congress already has approved $4.3 billion for the program, and the president is seeking another $1.35 billion next year.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday that he expected 10 to 15 state winners in second-round results to be announced in September.

Over the past year, both Delaware and Tennessee have pursued plans for holding teachers accountable for student test scores - an approach opposed by many New York teacher unions. Tennessee's test scores are lower than New York's; Delaware's are on roughly the same level.

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