Race to the Top booby prize
- Last Updated: 4:01 AM, August 30, 2010
- Posted: 12:04 AM, August 30, 2010
New York officials fell all over themselves last week, seeking credit for the $700 million New York "won" in federal Race to the Top school funding. Better they had turned the money down.
Let's be honest: Handing Albany such a huge sum in exchange for promises and baby-step "reforms," as Team Obama did, is a bit like giving an unemployed junkie cash for a fix, based on a vow to, maybe, peruse the want ads one day.
The money will evaporate 10 seconds after Washington signs the check. Worse, much of it may go toward projects that require even more funding down the road from New York taxpayers.
The promises may or may not materialize -- and those that do will move education mere millimeters down the miles-long road to reform.
The kicker? Much of this "free money" actually will come from . . . our own pockets. After all, the cost of any federal handout is ultimately borne by taxpayers -- and New Yorkers bear a disproportionate share of the federal tax bill.
In truth, the best part of the competition was not the money, but the reforms the state made, or pledged, in order to win. But these were minor, compared to the problems. And they're hardly guaranteed.
Take one law passed to meet the competition's requirements: Teachers, for the first time, will now be judged based partly on how much their students learn.
Feel free to read that again. Salesmen are paid according to how much they sell; chefs are judged on their cooking; trial lawyers on how much cash they win in court. But in the schools, where future generations are nurtured, the employees have been shielded from consequences of how well (or poorly) they do their job.
Yes, the new teacher-evaluation law is a step in the right direction. But many of its details are subject to negotiation with the unions, which can be counted on to fight to the death to preserve the status quo.
Ditto for another key change made in pursuit of the prize: the uptick in charter schools permitted in New York, from 200 to 460.
That didn't come string-free, either. But why limit charters at all, except to please the teachers unions, which fear the competition? Countless parents across the state yearn to send their kids to charters, which boast superior track records. The extra 260 charters are better than nothing, but they won't remotely meet demand. And lawmakers could still choke off charter growth any time.
New York made other vows, too. But even assuming they're kept, they pale compared to the badly needed reforms left out: Merit pay for good teachers. An end to seniority. Flexible work rules . . .
Then there's that hit on taxpayers. The $700 million is sup posed to be spent on one-time purchases. The state insists it's not creating "unfunded mandates."
"Districts will have to reallocate funds from ineffective programs," says state Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn. "New York was careful to focus on investments that were either one-time costs -- e.g., the data infrastructure -- or costs that could be sustained by other funding streams," such as scrapping ineffective programs.
But that data system, priced at $64 million, will have to be operated, maintained, perhaps upgraded or even replaced eventually. And here's a scary thought: CityTime, a data system for city employees, was pegged at $63 million in 1998. Still incomplete today, its cost now tops $722 million. Where will the extra funds come from?
Expect the rest of the $700 million -- $220 million for new standards and curriculum, $114 million to "turn around failing schools," $110 million for teacher and principal training, etc. -- to likewise fuel greater spending in years to come. Hey, this is New York.
We keep falling into the same trap. Earlier this month, local pols breathed easy when Congress OK'd another $26 billion stimulus and sent $2 billion to New York for schools and Medicaid. But that bailout merely relieved pressure to rein in out-of-control costs. Now, new funds will have to be found to pay the bills when the stimulus pot runs dry.
Likewise, anything worthwhile to be funded with Race to the Top money might have been paid for with existing funds, based on cuts elsewhere. Forget about any cuts now. Rather, count on the $700 million to trigger still higher taxes down the road.
And they call this a "prize"? email@example.comFollow @NYPostOpinion