Just when it seemed impossible that our opinion of New York's state legislature could get worse, it does. Now, it turns out these people can't even pick up free money.
The Obama administration is trying to improve American public education through bribery. It's dangling $4 billion in front of the states, challenging them to meet a series of benchmarks. Some of them, like embracing common academic standards, are simple enough that only Texas and Alaska seem incapable of making the grade.
Others are more challenging. But the one New York is hung up on - eliminating barriers to charter schools - is easy enough that even Albany ought to be capable of handling it.
No way. New York is eligible for up to $700 million in the money, but the deadline came and went without any action in the capitol to eliminate the current cap of 200 charter schools statewide.
The state handed in its application anyway. But the best grade it will probably be able to get is an incomplete.
Charter schools are publicly funded, but run by groups outside the regular school system. They're generally smaller, more innovative, and wildly popular with parents. Some of the charters in New York are nationally recognized as success stories - like Harlem Success Academy, which a recent study says has erased the gap between black and white student performance.
But with the current cap, New York City won't be able to create many more. Plus there's that matter of the $700 million.
What gives? The teachers union opposes charter schools. That's perfectly reasonable, since most of them aren't unionized. But not nearly enough cause for the rest of the state to refuse to continue these very promising experiments.
In some other states - including, once again, Texas - inept or shady sponsors have created disastrous charters that run out of money or wind up educating their students en masse in auditoriums or churches. But that hasn't happened in New York. The city regularly closes schools that seem to be floundering. There are some on Superintendent Joel Klein's hit list this year.
The legislature grudgingly went along with part of Gov. David Paterson's request for lifting the charter cap. It offered 400 schools, as opposed to the 600 the administration and New York City wanted.
Then the lawmakers in Albany started adding caveats. One would have left the approval of additional New York City charters to the state Board of Regents in Albany, rather than Chancellor Klein. Another would have barred Klein from allowing charters to use space in public school buildings, unless the school parents approved.
Which they wouldn't.
The regular public school community - teachers, administrators, parents and sometimes even students - resent the charters. They take up precious space in a system where there's never enough room. They often have better equipment, because parents and sponsors donate. And the teachers who struggle to educate kids with all the variety of challenges and troubles that New York City children bring to the classroom feel the charter schools cream the best of the crop, leaving them with the problems.
All of this is understandable. But we do pay our legislators to rise above the normal squabbles of life and see the big picture.
Which in this case is $700 million.
The state could lose out completely, although it's more likely it will get a slice of the original pie. But as the New York Times noted in a recent editorial, whatever is lost could be added onto the federal mass transit funds the city lost when Albany refused to pass a congestion pricing plan that involved new tolls on cars entering Manhattan during rush hour.
If I remember correctly, we kissed about $354 million good-bye in that debacle. With any luck, this year the state legislature could hit the $1 billion mark when it comes to thrown-away federal aid.