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

Schumer's Role in "Race to the Top": Is the Fix In?

For months, rumors have circulated in New York political and educational circles that U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer has received assurances from the Obama administration that New York will receive a "round one" grant from the highly competitive federal $4 billion Race to the Top competition for educational dollars. This could mean as much as $350 million for the cash-strapped state.

The indefatigable Schumer is the third-ranked Senator in the United States Senate, a possible successor to Harry Reid as Majority Leader (if Reid loses his tenuous re-election bid), and a linchpin for getting Obama-care through the Senate. Schumer also is very close personally to Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who views Race to the Top as a priority. So, the theory has at least surface plausibility.

The U.S. Department of Education vehemently denies "the fix is in" for New York or any other state.

Schumer Victory on "Data Firewall"

Working with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Schumer appears to have scored his first victory by convincing the Education Secretary to buy into their argument that New York's "data firewall" will not disqualify New York from applying.

Earlier in the year, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan drew a line in sand stating that any state that prohibited the use of student data in teacher evaluations -- called a "data firewall" -- simply was not eligible to apply for Race to the Top funds.

Duncan specifically highlighted four states with this problem: California, New York, Nevada, and Wisconsin.

Under the new guidelines, according to the Department: "At the time the State submits its application, there must not be any legal, statutory, or regulatory barriers at the State level to linking data on student achievement or student growth to teachers and principals for the purpose of teacher and principal evaluation" (emphasis added).

On the surface, this "eligibility requirement" would appear to disqualify New York from applying in Round 1 since its firewall does not sunset until April 2010 and applications are due in January 2010.

But, New York Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and, privately, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer have been assuring state officials that they have been told that the Department will not rule New York out of consideration, in part because New York's law only applies to tenure decisions.

Joanna Weiss, the director of the Race to the Top competition, confirmed to me that the Department was buying this interpretation in a public forum earlier this year.

That, of course, does not mean that New York's data firewall will not be considered a negative factor, even if it is not a disqualifying factor. That's an important distinction that New York policy-makers should understand.

One presumes that the Obama administration will seek assurances that New York's "data firewall" law will sunset as scheduled, rather than risk the embarrassment of New York receiving a Race to the Top award in April 2010, and then extending the much-ridiculed, data-firewall law days or weeks later.

The Department's Process

The review and decision-making process set forth in the final Departmental regulations is highly rigid and process-oriented, suggesting that states that cannot rack up points for various Departmental priorities and selection criteria stand little chance of winning - regardless of political intervention.

The amount of money each state may receive is dictated by the number of children aged 5-17. And state eligibility will be ranked by the number of points they receive on a 500-point scale. The Department appears to have taken great care to insulate themselves from the inevitable political pressures they will receive from every Governor, Senator, Congressman, and big-city Mayor in the nation.

The Race to the Top Points System includes: 138 points for policies to encourage "great teachers and leaders"; 125 points for "state success factors" such as the state's education reform agenda; 70 points for standards and assessments; 50 points for turning around the lowest-achieving schools; 47 points for developing and using data systems to support instruction; 40 points for creating conditions for high-performing charter schools; and 15 points for making education funding a high priority and other reform conditions.

Points are awarded based on independent outside reviewers, and then states will be ranked in order of highest combined points.

Left unclear is how many awards will be granted in Round One.

Schumer's Impact

Schumer effectively has gotten New York in the game, but any claims that he or anyone else has delivered the prize to New York are premature.

The actual process for ranking state applications does not leave much room for the political machinations at which Schumer excels.

I would never bet against Schumer, but New York's best strategy is figuring out how to submit a compelling application rather than relying on an inside fix.