03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gov. Paterson Forfeits Leadership Role in Race to the Top; Will Anyone Step Forward?

New York Governor David Paterson just ceded any claim to be leading the state's effort to compete for federal Race to the Top dollars. This week Paterson flippantly indicated, through a spokesperson, that he had no interest in forwarding a legislative package to help ensure New York was well positioned to compete for Race to the Top.

New York's official motto -- excelsior -- is Latin for "ever upward." Under Paterson, perhaps the state's motto will be changed to "whatever" (pronounced like a Valley Girl would).

The Governor's inaction -- perhaps disinterest -- in whether New York has a shot at hundreds of millions of dollars in federal education aid underscores the vacuum on educational issues that has existed since Paterson got the fateful call -- in the midst of the Spitzer prostitution scandal -- that elevated him to the governor's office.

So, who, if anyone, will lead? Three obvious and qualified candidates, each of whom has displayed more leadership than the governor, come to mind: Richard Ravitch, the state's capable (indeed overqualified) Lieutenant Governor; Merryl Tisch, the strategic and energetic chancellor of the Board of Regents; and David Steiner, the state's cerebral Regents-appointed state education commissioner.

In Colorado, Lieutenant Governor Barbara O'Brien has been deputized to lead the state's Race to the Top effort. In New York, though, the demands of the current budget crisis may simply make Lieutenant Governor Ravitch unavailable for this task. Ravitch (the former husband of education historian Diane Ravitch) is distracted right now by the time-consuming and important task of guiding the less financially savvy governor through the state's fiscal crisis. By all accounts, Ravitch is helping bring a maturity, sophistication, and much-needed historical perspective to executive chamber budget talks.

Thus, the most likely scenario is that New York's response to Race to the Top will be shaped jointly by Tisch and Steiner. Tisch -- a former teacher who earned an Ed.D. from Columbia University's Teachers College -- has served on the Board of Regents for 13 years and has developed a deep mastery of educational issues. Steiner, as a former dean of education at Hunter College and as a profound thinker about the purpose of education, provides a much-needed intellectual dimension.

Importantly, Tisch has the political instincts and heft to shape a package that is politically doable -- amidst treacherous political crosscurrents - and to then forge a consensus among the state's leaders.

The key elements of a winning plan likely would include: fixing the state's accountability plan, including the dumbing down of state assessments; increasing the use of data to drive educational decisions and classroom practices; overhauling teacher-education programs; creating alternative routes to teacher certification; encouraging promising innovations such as virtual education; streamlining state tenure laws to make it easier to get rid of poorly performing teachers; recruiting top operators to address school turnarounds; expanding and supporting charter schools; and ending New York's ban on the use of student data in tenure decisions.

Some of these steps will require legislative change. The U.S. Department of Education has made clear it will give greater weight to reforms already adopted over reforms merely promised. This will require the state's political leaders to agree to a bold plan -- and adopt any needed legislative changes on a timely basis.

Governor Paterson may not have the disposition to lead on Race to the Top. But, the time will come when Paterson will at least have to follow -- unless he is willing to walk away from hundreds of millions of education dollars in the midst of New York's extreme fiscal crisis.