January 5, 2011
Two more Races to the Top could be coming to New York — this time courtesy of Governor Andrew Cuomo.
In his first State of the State speech today, Cuomo proposed creating two new competitive grant funds for state school districts, worth $250 million each.
The first grant would reward districts that boost students’ academic performance. The second would go to districts that find ways to cut costs that don’t affect the classroom.
It’s not yet clear if the addition of the grant competitions would alter the state’s current formula-based education model. But the governor was critical of the model, which he said gives districts no incentives to improve.
“Competition works,” Cuomo said, pointing to the state legislature’s passage of a charter cap lift bill as part of its (eventually successful) bid to win Race to the Top funds.
Cuomo’s plan would follow the lead of the federal government, which the governor said has “actually been more innovative in this area.” The U.S. Department of Education still doles out most of its money to states according to formulas, but under President Barack Obama has also begun granting billions of dollars based on the outcomes of competitions.
The state’s current formula — set after a landmark court win by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in 2007 — doles out funds to school districts based on the number of students each serves. The formula gives districts more money for serving impoverished students, those learning English, and other high-needs students.
Geri Palast, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, said that the governor should tread carefully in building an incentive-based funding model. ”I think the notion of moving away from a formula is very dangerous, actually,” she said.
Heavily impoverished school districts — which tend to rely more on state funds than districts with wealthy tax bases — have already taken disproportionate hits in their funding because of state cuts, Palast said. She argued that changes to the state funding formula must be made with an eye toward ensuring an equal starting line for needy students.
“I’m not opposed to incentives; I think incentives are great,” she said. “But they have to be incentives on top of provisions in the law that provide for kids’ basic needs.”
Cuomo will not be the first governor to call for tying education funding to accountability measures. When former Governor Eliot Spitzer entered office, he promised to tie a pool of funds won through the CFE lawsuit to districts’ efforts to introduce a handful of innovations such as reducing class size and lengthening the school day.
But the state’s accountability program, known as Contracts for Excellence, failed to accomplish several of its goals. Class size in New York City, for example, has increased, and critics continue to contend that the city has used the money it received through the settlement not towards reducing class size, but rather to partially backfill money lost through system-wide budget cuts.