Surprise! Education secretary Arne Duncan announced this week that New York is a finalist in the first round of the Race to the Top (RttT) grant competition, the Obama administration initiative that will reward states with federal education dollars if they adopt a range of reforms. The good news is that the state is still in the running for up to $700 million in funding, money that would help fill some immediate budget gaps. The bad news is that winning would set education reform in the state back years.

According to Department of Education guidelines, states improve their chances of getting RttT funds by adopting policies like merit pay, using student test scores to evaluate teachers, and eliminating caps on charter schools. States submitted applications in January, and an expert panel has been evaluating the proposals according to the stated RttT criteria ever since. The panel has whittled the list down to 16 finalists; now it’s up to Duncan to decide which states will receive grant money.

Until the finalists were announced, RttT had been a clear success: without allocating a single dollar, the competition had spurred several states to adopt a series of promising reforms. Many states pushed these reforms through quickly, fearing that if they dawdled, they would be left out in the cold. This week’s announcement offers the first real information we have about how the administration is evaluating applications.

If Duncan means it when he says that he wants the promise of federal money to jump-start education reform in reluctant state capitals, then naming New York as a finalist sends exactly the wrong message. New York’s application should have been rejected. Albany’s astounding failure to adopt significant reforms ahead of the application deadline should have rendered the state ineligible for grant funds. New York restricts schools from using test scores to evaluate teachers. The state also failed either to abolish or raise its cap on the number of charter schools. New York continues to put charter schools at a disadvantage by denying them capital funds. These policies were all explicit no-no’s in the RttT guidelines. That New York could do so much wrong and still be considered a finalist is a head-scratcher. If Duncan allocates even one dollar to New York, the RttT standards would become meaningless.

Can New York use $700 million? Sure—the state is bleeding red ink. Education finances are in such dire shape that Mayor Bloomberg has floated the possibility of firing as many as 11,000 city teachers next year.

But giving the state RttT dollars would be like putting a Band-Aid on a cancerous lesion. Like most other states, New York has education problems that can’t be solved with a few hundred million dollars. What New York needs is the real, systematic, and long-lasting reforms that Secretary Duncan and President Obama said that they wanted RttT to produce: the kind of reforms that Albany legislators turned their backs on when they prepared New York’s RttT application.

Duncan will announce the Race to the Top winners in April. Anyone sincerely interested in improving education in New York should hope that our state is not on that list.


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