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OPINION: NY should keep running in the Race to the Top

Joe Williams is the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.

With Tuesday's announcement of 19 new Race to the Top finalists, New York is one step closer to winning $700 million in education funding for its public school students.

Although we can see the finish line, we haven't won yet. In fact there's still much work to be done at the state level before we show that we deserve the funding.

Winning the federal "Race" has always been predicated on two big-picture conditions. First, states needed to adopt education reforms designed to improve failing schools, bolster student achievement, and get kids ready for college and the workforce. All reforms had to have been passed and included in each state's application, which was due June 1.

Second, states had to outline the actual steps they would take to put new systems in place - and demonstrate that the political will and resources would be available to carry them out. As federal reviewers interview the finalists in the coming weeks in Washington, implementation of reform will be a key factor in selecting the winners.

Looking strictly at the reforms New York passed in May - which included a lift of the state charter school cap and a program to tie test scores to teacher evaluations - we would rank near the top of the finalists. If the state were judged solely on the legislation it passed, New York would have a good chance of winning.

But that's not the case. Right now there are some serious questions about New York's will to follow through on these reforms. At the end of the day, those doubts could keep the state from winning this much-needed money.

Charter schools are a great example of a place where the state's commitment to reform is questionable. As part of its Race to the Top application, New York raised the public charter school cap from 200 to 460 schools and outlined a plan to move toward parity in funding between charter schools and district schools. (Right now charters receive thousands of dollars less per pupil.) The state did this specifically because Race to the Top identified the expansion of successful charter schools as a key to winning the competition.

But while the state was ostensibly opening the door for more of these great public schools to operate in New York, it also adopted provisions to further reduce charter funding. On paper, the state has said it will cultivate charter growth, while in reality, the state continues to perpetuate funding discrepancies that will stymie charter school expansion.

That disparity between New York's application and its actual actions will not be lost on the federal reviewers. And charter schools aren't the only place where a gap between action and word is occurring. While the state passed a law to use student performance data in teacher evaluations, the details of how this will work have yet to be hammered out. Opposition could stall implementation for years, setting the state's plans back significantly.

If New York seriously wants to win the Race to the Top - and get $700 million for its public school students - then it needs to start walking the reform walk.

There's still hope this will happen. Senate Majority Leader John Sampson (D-Brooklyn) and his colleagues in the State Senate have shown tremendous foresight and commitment to improving the state's education system. It was their leadership that helped pass the package of reforms that made New York competitive for this federal funding. They'll likely be leading the charge again to ensure those reforms - including equitable funding for charter schools - are instituted.

At its core, the Race to the Top is about providing every one of our students with a better education. As test scores released yesterday demonstrate, we still have a lot of room for improvement. It's time for lawmakers, districts and unions across the state to get on board and ensure that we're offering all of our students the education they deserve.

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