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Local School Officials Endorse New York's Race to the Top Bid

Despite some controversial provisions, district leaders and teacher's associations support the application for federal funding.

State education officials submitted their Race to the Top application to the federal government June 1, and Bedford Central and Katonah Lewisboro school officials were among those who signed off on the push for up to $700 million over four years in federal education dollars.

It's unlikely that local schools would see much, if any, of those funds. But despite the lack of financial incentive, superintendents in both districts say they decided to support needier districts.

"It wasn't a hindrance to us," said Dr. Robert Roelle, superintendent of K-L schools. "I believe we have a moral responsibility to children in other parts of the county and the state."

Race to the Top is the Obama Administration's $4.35 billion education reform incentive program, granting hundreds of millions of dollars to states agreeing to implement reforms in four areas: adopting common educational standards and assessments, building data systems to track student achievement, training effective teachers, and turning around failing schools.

Support from districts and teacher associations is seen as critical to making the state's application stronger. In the first round, which New York lost, winners Delaware and Tennessee both had support from over 90 percent of local districts.

But the fact that recent legislation was passed in order to boost the state's application caused some local officials to philosophically disagree with the funding program.

"I signed reluctantly," said Jere Hochman, superintendent of the Bedford Central Schools. "I'm not in favor of legislative changes through the carrot stick [of federal funds.] New York leveraged the application to make rapid changes that make sweeping generalizations. There is no quick fix or one size fits all means of reform," he said.

New York state lawmakers recently approved education legislation, signed into law by Governor Paterson, that lifted the cap on the number of charter schools in the state from 200 to 460, and created a new teacher evaluation system that is tied to student performance.

Hochman is concerned about a potential increase in charter schools, which are publicly funded but not subject to many state rules that apply to public schools. "We could have more niche schools that are exclusive, don't represent a wide demographic and have fewer special education students."

Sandra Grebinar, president of the Katonah Lewisboro Teachers Association, and Adam Yuro, president of the Bedford Teachers Association, are not in favor of charter schools either, but say some of the reforms put in place—such as preventing for-profit charter schools from opening new ones—made them more comfortable signing the state's second try for the funds—neither had supported the state's first application.

"It's about education," Grebinar. "We need all kinds of schools to best serve our children, and this program may help public schools who need it most."

The new evaluations will be based on a 100-point scale, with 20 points determined by standardized tests and 20 by local tests, to be designed by school districts. All teachers would receive the new forms of ratings by the 2012-13 school year.

While sixty percent of the evaluation will not be based on test scores, Hochman said he does not favor linking evaluations with test scores. "There's so much more to student achievement—grades, work submitted, approach to writing. We look at student growth and don't need a test to tell us they're not performing."

And they didn't include administrators, who have responsibilities related to student performance, in the evaluation agreement at all, he added.

But Yuro believes there will be room for deciding how to measure student progress. "Sixty percent of the evaluation is still collectively bargained—we will have a great deal of say," said Yuro.

According to the New York State Department of Education, 91 percent of public school districts, or 632 of 694, submitted signed memorandums of understanding for the application.

"We believe that the application submitted in partnership with our stakeholders constitutes a comprehensive agenda for education reform.  Success in the Race to the Top will raise achievement for New York State's 3 million students," said Education Commissioner David Steiner, in a press release.

The U.S. Deparment of Education will announce finalists for Phase II in July.

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