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Paterson seeks schools laws changes for chance at aid

With the application deadline just days away, Gov. David A. Paterson Thursday urged sweeping changes in school laws designed to boost the state's chances for winning up to $700 million in federal "Race to the Top" incentives.

Paterson's plan includes elimination of the state's current cap on charter-school expansion, and also of a state ban on using student test scores to decide whether teachers deserve job tenure. Both proposals are unpopular with the state's powerful teacher unions.

Beyond this, the governor was criticized Thursday by some lawmakers in his own party for issuing proposals so close to the Jan. 19 application deadline. Some governors in competing states, such as California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, issued reform proposals months ago.

"He's kind of late, so he's going to be a dollar short," said Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), a senior member of the Legislature's Democratic majority.

Paterson's aides acknowledge time is running short. But they add that the governor has pushed his plans privately with legislative leaders for several weeks, and that lawmakers still have time to approve proposals next week.

Race to the Top money could go a long way in compensating for anticipated losses in state aid to schools in 2010-11. Paterson is expected to call for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid cuts to help close the state's budget deficit when he delivers his annual state budget proposal later this month.

"For the sake of our children, we must not risk the opportunity to compete for, and win, Round 1 funds," the governor said Thursday. The reference was to the first round of Race to the Top grants, which are to be announced in April.

Federal school-reform incentives total an unprecedented $4.3 billion. Four megastates - California, Texas, New York and Florida - have been encouraged to apply for grants ranging from $350 million to $700 million.

Federal officials have not specified how many states among the Big Four might win grants. But aides to President Barack Obama have criticized New York for its statewide cap of 200 charter schools, and also for the ban on using test scores in tenure decisions, which is due to expire July 1.In addition to dealing with those issues, Paterson also wants to allow state financing of charter-school construction, and to empower state Regents to appoint temporary administrators to replace school boards in running chronically failing schools.

Some national education experts say New York deserves a shot at Race to the Top money, because it has been more successful than most states in closing the test-score gap between blacks and whites. "New York does have some definite progress to point to," said Daria Hall, director of policy development for the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

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