Merryl Tisch, State Schools Chancellor, Doesn't Seem Too Worked Up About Losing Federal Funds

State schools chancellor and role model Merryl Tisch certainly sounded like she was showing New York's millions of public school kids how to throw in the towel Wednesday night.

She told NY1's Lindsey Christ that the state might not even submit an application to get $700 million in special federal funding rather than going through "the humiliation" of losing again, as it just did on the first round of the funding cycle, when the state came in 15th out of the 16 applicants. Instead of submitting a stronger proposal by the June 1 deadline for the second stage of the Race to the Top competition -- the title of President Obama's reform-demanding new funding stream -- Tisch appeared to be saying how Satisfied at the Bottom it is.

Tisch told the Voice she was a bit "inarticulate" at the Plaza Hotel event where she made the comments cited by NY1, and that she was "by no means throwing in the towel," calling her remarks more of a "call to action." What got in the way of the first application earlier this year, and is blocking a second shot now, is the United Federation of Teachers, whose leaders, Randi Weingarten and Michael Mulgrew, are so resistant to charter schools and other reforms required by Race to the Top that they'd prefer to pass on the dough than grow.

"I've been working with the unions and others to get us to a place where everyone will park their petty differences at the door," says Tisch. "I want to craft a proposal that will be competitive. We can't afford to miss out on that money or to spin our wheels." She says the application must change the charter law, which caps the number of charter schools statewide at 200, and lift it to either 400 or 460, and that it must also "put a new teacher evaluation system in place." Tisch says she "loves charters," but believes the schools need to accept some changes as well, including efforts to "diversify the population" of the students attending them to include a proportionate share of the special education and English Language Learner population.

Forget David Paterson, Hiram Monserrate, Pedro Espada, and all the rest of the Albany mess. There is no better example of Albany dysfunction than the stalemate over the Race to the Top funding, which is occurring at a time when the Democrats in the state senate are calling for cuts in school aid that are twice the additional revenue that would come from the Obama fund. Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver and John Sampson, the senate Democratic leader, are so indifferent to the reform agenda of a Democratic president that they have been willing to sacrifice the funding rather than upset the teachers unions, one of the largest sources of Democratic campaign contributions in New York.

The fact that a teachers union facing possible layoffs would use its clout to kill this application -- which would, if funded, inevitably lead to reform programs that would require hiring from its own members -- is both unprecedented and shocking. The federal funding requires that teacher unions, as stakeholders in the system, have to formally indicate that they support the application, and only 61 percent of New York's unions, by district, backed even the weak first submission by the state.

Bill Phillips, who heads the statewide Charter School Association, told the Voice that Tisch "may be calling the union's bluff." He said his association is negotiating with Sampson and top senate leadership staff to try to satisfy concerns about charters, especially around the special education and English Language Learner issue. Since charter children are picked on a lottery basis, this would require preferences for these two categories of students to be built into the random selection process.

Asked why he's just negotiating with the senate, Phillips said: "The assembly is not the place to start negotiating; it has been historically hostile to charters." If an agreement can be reached with Sampson, Phillips and other charter school backers believe that the state's fiscal crisis may force the assembly to be more flexible about raising the cap. "There's no way the state legislature can turn away $700 million," Phillips contended, though it already did that with its doomed first application.

In another ongoing assault on charters, the current senate and assembly budgets virtually defund the State University of New York Charter Institute, which grants charters to new schools. Asked who's responsible for the $1.7 million cut in the institute's meager $2.4 million budget, Phillips said: "Merryl Tisch." Tisch's Board of Regents and State Education Department also authorize charters and Phillips says Tisch "has taken it to a new level" in an effort to shut down what he says is "the best authorizer" of new schools. Philips insists he's "not too worried" about this cut, because it "would weaken the application" for Race to the Top money.

Tisch insists that she had "nothing to do" with the legislative cuts, and that she "doesn't know what caused it," though she wouldn't say if she favored restoring the funding. "It's not my bailiwick," said Tisch, who was installed as chancellor by Silver and his legislative allies. Tisch said "SUNY has done a fine job" overseeing charters, acknowledging even that "our record doesn't look as good," comparing state ed and SUNY. But she attributes that to a reduction in SED funding for this oversight, and the fact that the better-funded schools, backed by wealthy benefactors, are seeking charters through SUNY, leaving only "the poorer schools" to the department. "SUNY can't be a rubber stamp" for charters sought by NYC Chancellor Joel Klein, Tisch said.

Jonas Chartock, the head of SUNY's Institute, said that the Race to the Top evaluators commented on the first proposal that New York "did a good job in rigorous oversight" of charters, and that this was a particular "hallmark" of SUNY, which has shut down eight failing schools. Asked if Tisch was the main advocate of the defunding due to competitive reasons, Chartock said: "I wouldn't venture to guess what the various motivations are." Voice efforts to get Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to comment about the stalemate were unsuccessful, though Phillips said "it certainly would be useful" if Cuomo pushed Silver, Sampson, Tisch and others to find a way to get a winning proposal in at the U.S. Department of Education. Cuomo spokesman John Milgrim did tell the Voice in February that Cuomo "favored raising the cap" on charters and "believed it was a sad commentary that we gave up the opportunity to compete for the $700 million" when an adequate application was filed in the first round.


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