(From Press Connects, January 20, 2010)
By CARA MATTHEWS
ALBANY — Other states changed charter school laws to increase their odds of getting federal “Race to the Top” education funds, but New York officials couldn’t reach a compromise on last-minute legislation to do that and submitted their application minutes before Tuesday’s deadline.
The frenzy that took place in recent days as lawmakers and the governor tried to reach a compromise and pass a bill, and the ultimate failure to get anything accomplished, have renewed criticism that the state Legislature is dysfunctional.
“This really was a last-minute attempt at addressing something that the Legislature knew was necessary for a while. That’s a common problem with the Legislature,” said Lawrence Norden, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, which has dubbed the New York Legislature as the most dysfunctional in the country.
The state Board of Regents has been preparing the application for months. Gov. David Paterson sent a letter to lawmakers Jan. 12, a week before the deadline, about a bill he said would improve the state’s competitiveness for a Race to the Top grant.
Negotiations stalled, and the governor called lawmakers into a special session on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to address his bill. They left without taking any action, and they spent Tuesday trying to hammer out a deal.
Paterson’s legislation would have raised the charter cap from 200 to 460, about 10 percent of the number of public schools in the state.
A joint Assembly/Senate leadership bill would have doubled the cap, changed the charter-approval process, added a number of accountability and public disclosure requirements for the publicly funded but privately run schools, and made other changes.
In the end, there weren’t enough Senate votes for the joint bill because Republicans and some Democrats favored the governor’s legislation. Because the Senate didn’t take up the joint bill, the Assembly didn’t either, and the application was submitted at 4:10 p.m. Tuesday without any changes in state law.
Not having the legislation weakens New York’s application for a grant of between $400 million and $700 million, although charter schools count for a small number of points. Applications for a second round of grants are due in June.
Meanwhile, several states, including Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana and Michigan, lifted charter school caps or expanded the number of charter schools in advance of submitting their applications, according to the group Democrats for Education Reform.
President Barack Obama set up the Race to the Top program to spur innovation and reform in education. Forty states applied for some of the $4.35 billion pot.
After the governor introduced his bill, interest groups like the state School Boards Association, New York State United Teachers and the United Federation of Teachers pushed for a number of other changes they said would fix flaws in the charter school law. The result was the leaders’ bill.
UFT represents educators in New York City, where there has been a lot of criticism of charter schools.
“This law is a decade old and it was dysfunctional when it was written, and it’s been dysfunctional for 10 years,” NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi said.
The state School Boards Association lobbied heavily against the governor’s bill, distributing fliers on yellow cardstock to lawmakers.
“If you side with the governor and simply raise the cap on charter schools, you are imposing the largest unfunded mandate on local taxpayers in recent history — without any accountability for public funds or any connection to the actual need of children,” the fliers said.
Charter school advocates, including the state Charter Schools Association and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, lined up against the leaders’ bill, saying it would not reform the charter system and would be a step backward for New York.
Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, said he wrote the governor a letter in August that urged him to call a special session on Race to the Top issues. There was no secret about the Tuesday deadline, he said.
“New York has a terrible reputation of being a dysfunctional state. We have a terrible reputation of waiting until the last minute on everything. We lived up to that reputation yesterday, and the kids suffered,” said Hoyt, who introduced the governor’s bill in the Assembly.
Sen. Craig Johnson, D-Nassau County, said what happened with the legislation “demonstrates that we should not leave these important matters simply to one particular entity or one particular house. We need to work together — Assembly, Senate and the governor’s office as well as interested parties, like the mayor of New York City, like SUNY, to come up with the best application process.”