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New York State Lawmakers Just Failed Public School Kids

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They blew it. When New York State Legislators barely made yesterday's deadline to submit an application for federal "Race to the Top" education grants, they did so without including the key component of the application: a plan to increase the cap on charter schools in the state. That's sort of like applying for college minus your essay/transcript/letters of recommendations. What's the point?

Refusing to include a charter school plan yesterday jeopardized New York's chances at winning some $7 million in federal grants out of the $4 billion "Race to the Top" allocation pie.

Talk about foolhardy. Actually, that's the word the head of the state's largest teachers union, New York State United Teachers, used to describe legislation he and his members refused to support and the Democratic-led legislature failed to push forward.

Want to know what's really foolhardy? Allowing millions of dollars of aid to slip away from the country's largest school district, particularly at a time when the state keeps hacking away via budget cuts. (In a painful piece of irony, lawmakers fumbled their application on the same day Governor Paterson proposed a 5 percent cut in school aid for the coming year.)

For those who aren't familiar with the Race to the Top grants, those are the dangling financial carrots offered by the Obama administration to encourage school reform, particularly in those states where any attempt at progress is likely to become bogged down in the legislative pipeline. It's an interesting approach. Not only does it encourage innovative thinking, it flies directly in the face of the punitive-based No Child Left Behind policy.

Under the Race to the Top initiative, states were asked to come up with reform programs such as the inclusion or expansion of charter schools. The Feds even made this application test a no-brainer, actually relaying the number of charter schools they expected states to propose in order to garner a favorable outcome. For New York, that meant a bump up from the current cap of 200 charter schools to 460, the number supported by Governor Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg.

So how come after months of debate the Legislature was only able to come up with a proposed cap of 400 charter schools, far fewer than the number clearly stated in the Race to the Top criteria?

Leaving aside the question as to whether our lawmakers need to spend some time in remedial math, why might those in charge not want the expansion of charter schools? After all, these are the schools in the public system that function without the burden of collective bargaining and the quirks of your average school board.

They're also popular. Some 36,000 students are on a waiting list in New York for available slots in the 99 available charter schools.

Critics say charters siphon away high achievers, leaving the most educationally vulnerable behind. But enrollment is based on a lottery system that draws from the same vast assortment of student ability as any other public school in the same neighborhood.

Part of the bickering up in Albany centered on whether charter schools should be the responsibility of schools chancellor Joel Klein or a state body like the Board of Regents (whose members are appointed by the legislature). Then there's the debate over where charter schools get located. Typically, they're housed in the same building as district schools and that has caused tension.

Those are important issues and merit further discussion. But not at the expense of what was supposed to have been a fairly straightforward task: issuing a bona fide application that was worthy of consideration by federal authorities trying to determine which of the 40 states who applied for grants are deserving. Securing millions of dollars of aid would have helped all public school students in New York. By flunking a simple application procedure lawmakers in New York have made sure we all fail.