Oceanside Middle School teacher Adrienne Palermo proctors the exam as...

Oceanside Middle School teacher Adrienne Palermo proctors the exam as the students take the math regents at Oceanside Middle School. (June 18, 2010) Credit: William Perlman

New York was named a finalist Tuesday for a federal “Race to the Top” education grant that could bring $500 million to the cash-strapped state.

The money would be critical for schools and taxpayers at a time state education aid is set to be cut by $1.4 billion, or about 5 percent. Gov. David A. Paterson called for the reduction to help close a $9.2 billion deficit in the current state budget. Although the Legislature sought to restore $600 million, Paterson vetoed that, saying the state couldn’t afford it.

“New York is back where it belongs in the Race to the Top,” said state Senate leader John Sampson, a Brooklyn Democrat.

“Today, we have moved one step closer to improving all of New York’s schools, so all of New York’s children have the world class education they deserve.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was to make the announcement in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington.

New York was a finalist in the first round, but failed in January to get what was then estimated to be as much $700 million.

The state’s application was weaker then because the Democrat-led Legislature couldn’t agree to expand the number of charter schools in the state, something long opposed by the state’s powerful teachers’ unions.

Paterson had called that an element critical to giving New York its best chance.

Lawmakers agreed in March to expand opportunities for opening more charter schools and other steps, working with the state Board of Regents and state Education Commissioner David Steiner and  New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein. The number of charters available for the innovative schools will increase to 460 over four years from the current 200.

Paterson said then that he was confident the bill would “greatly increase our competitiveness in the second round of Race to the Top.”

In May, Duncan said New York’s charter school cap had cost the state 13 points off the rating on its first grant application. The state placed 15th out of 16 states that applied. Duncan said New York had a “great chance” to win a grant in the second round.

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