Joe Williams on How New York Won the Race to the Top

For an article just published by EdNext which looked at how New York managed to win second place in round 2 of Race to the Top, I interviewed many key players in the drama.  Below are highlights from an interview I did with Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. The interview took place, by phone, on December 8, 2010.

Education Next [EN]:  How did you get involved in New York’s Race to the Top business?

Joe Williams [JW]: It goes back to the spring of 2009, when the stimulus package was approved and Race to the Top is bubbling around and nobody in New York State knew what anybody was talking about.  In fact, [at the time] the general consensus from Merryl Tisch and Governor Paterson, on down the line, was that Chuck Schumer is a powerful Senator – why does New York need to worry?  We send our elected officials to Washington to bring home the bacon, so why was this going to be any different?

EN: Were you worried?

JW: We were worried. We were worried that it was rigged.  We were worried that no one in New York was taking it seriously.  They were asking, Why are you rocking the boat? That kind of thing. It was in September or October [of 2009] – wait, it was November because there was a Yankees playoff game that night.  I was on a panel and Merryl Tisch was on it and she declared that she thought New York had a great package and would win [Round 1 of RttT]. I disagreed with her, and we sort of went at it for a little bit. I said that if there was a race, you had to at least tie your shoes and show up at the starting line.  New York was flabby, and eating donuts and not ready to compete for anything.

EN: Did they ever get the message?

JW:  Later that month, when Gov. Paterson was on a conference call with other governors and either Obama or Duncan, they made it clear that states that had things like a firewall in place between [student achievement] data and teacher evaluation and had charter school caps in place – those states would have a tough time winning [RttT] and getting any money out of this stuff. It was about the same time that David Steiner was sworn in and started his work. He and the governor and Merryl Tisch began to understand that they had a little bit of a problem.

EN:  Did that solve the problem?

JW:  The [state Senate] staffers were being told that [U.S.] Senators [Chuck] Schumer and [Kristen] Gillibrand had said, in some sort of conference call, that we didn’t really need to worry about it. That everything was going to be okay for New York. The message they also got was don’t rock the boat. Don’t push any of this Race to the Top stuff.  The quieter the better.

At the time Obama was trying to peel away votes for the health care bill. And the theory we were hearing from Albany staffers was that Chuck Schumer and company would get the votes Obama needed on health care and New York would be rewarded with Race to the Top funding.  I never talked to Schumer about it, but we were hearing this from state Senate staffers who stopped work on the legislation we were working on with them.  So I called Arne Duncan’s office and said, “You need to know how this is playing out in a state like ours and we’re probably going to have to go to the New York Times with this, to let them know that the Obama education plan is a total sham

A couple days later I get a call from Merryl Tisch and some of the state Senate leaders asking me to come to a meeting.  They couldn’t decide whether to do it in Albany or New York City, so we did it by teleconference. A bunch of state Senators, staffers, me, and charter leaders Tom Carroll, James Merriman, Bill Phillips… And the beginning of the meeting was, basically, “Who called Arne Duncan and is badmouthing New York State?”

EN: Did you fess up?

JW: I did. I said, I called Arne Duncan and I needed to let him know what we were hearing.  And the staffers who had told us this about the call with Schumer were in the room at this meeting. And I said there are people in this room who know what I’m talking about.  And Senator Malcolm Smith said, “C’mon, name names.”  I said, “I’m not going to do that, but everyone here knows what I’m talking about.”

At that point, David Steiner stood up and said, “Look, I was on this call with the state chiefs and it’s clear we’re going to have a lot of difficulty with both the firewall and the charter cap. We’re going to have trouble competing in the Race to the Top.” At that point people started to take it seriously.

So, for six months we had been trying to get people to talk about this. But it really wasn’t until Steiner–in the context of us getting taken to the woodshed about why we were throwing New York under the bus with the feds–it was clearly understood at that point that we were going to be publicly embarrassed.

EN: So what did you do after the failure of Round 1?

JW: We decided to put together a pretty sophisticated political campaign, in the winter of 2010, to make it so that the legislature couldn’t just punt again.  We started with some polling statewide and we found that, as you would expect, most people could care less about charter schools, don’t know what they are, don’t really care. But we found out, by like 90/10, that if there were a federal contest, with seven hundred million dollars at stake, at a time when we’re talking about laying off teachers in districts all over the place, New York State should be doing everything they can to win it. The idea of New York being competitive in a national race to the top in education reform was a no-brainer to people around the state.

So we crafted the campaign in such a way as to make this an up or down vote about whether New York should get $700 million from Obama. We didn’t want it to be an up or down vote on charter schools or an up or down vote on teacher evaluations. We wanted it to be an up or down vote on progress and the money. We ran it like a political campaign.  We had canvassers going door to door in the key districts of the Senate and Assembly, knocking on their doors, knocking on their parents’ doors. We were doing patch-through phone calls. At one point we had the mother of a New York City assemblyman patch through to his office to demand that he support the Race to the Top package. We generated thousands of phone calls and thousands of faxes and knocked on thousands of doors. And we had an air-war component as well. We ran $4 to $5 million worth of television ads blaming the teachers union for losing the chance to win $700 million in round one and urging the legislature to bring home the money for New York.

EN:  How did you know if it was working?

JW:  I’m jumping ahead a little bit, but a couple of state senators who were not traditionally charter school supporters, when they voted Yes to lift the cap, mentioned that they had been contacted by so many parents that they couldn’t ignore it.  They couldn’t say No to them.

EN:  Where did your best support come from?

JW:  We had a solid block of Republican votes. This was all about picking up Democratic votes to whatever extent we could. One of our television ads had Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, Andrew Cuomo, David Paterson all supporting the legislation [on teacher evaluations and charter caps], to imply that if you didn’t support it, you weren’t a good Democrat.  There was some edge to the ad. We were very critical of the unions. We wanted to blame them for gunking up the process in round one and urge the legislators to listen to their communities instead of to the unions.

EN: Then what?

JW: At that point we basically had legislation that had been drafted months before that we just needed to get support for. And we ended up getting a lot more support in the state Senate [than we anticipated].  John Sampson ended up being very helpful, surprising the Assembly. There was a point when the Senate passed the Race to the Top legislation – both the charter cap lift and the teacher evaluation legislation – at a time and in a way that completely took the Assembly by surprise.  I think they thought they could wait until the last day and throw something in that was cosmetic.  And what the Senate ended up passing was a pretty good piece of reform legislation.  And it immediately put all the spotlight on to the Assembly and [Speaker] Shelly Silver.

Andrew Cuomo weighed in behind the scenes and basically said “Please take care of this before I’m governor.”  And Shelly Silver at that point told the union to negotiate this out – because there was going to be legislation, so come back with a deal that we can bring up for a vote.


EN: Looking down the road, two questions come to mind. Is RttT going to change education, and how are we going to know if it’s working?

JW: Our view at DFER is that programs like this are not necessarily changing education but creating new points of leverage for people who are trying to create conditions where reform can happen. We viewed this as a big success. This gave tremendous leverage to reform activists all over the country who were trying to get legislation passed that probably would not have passed otherwise. That’s what we thought the goal was and we thought it was a smashing success. Now it’s up to the states to turn this into changing education. On the teacher quality issue we’re going to see in the next year that they unleash something even more powerful than we realize now. The discussions about the future of teacher evaluation and teacher tenure are going to pick up speed all over the country and the origins are going to turn out to be in Race to the Top….

EN: Thank you.

-Peter Meyer

NB:  The EdNext article for which this interview was conducted appears here. You can read my interview with David Steiner about how New York won the Race to the Top here. And a later interview I did with Steiner (just a few days after he announced his resignation) appears here. Finally, you can view New York’s Race to the Top presentation here.

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