ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, to the issue of education funding. In New York state, the commissioner of education has suspended $100 million in federal grants. The money was supposed to go to struggling schools in 10 districts, but the districts were required to come up with new teacher evaluation systems, and they missed their deadline.
As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the cuts could stall the effort to turn around New York state's lowest-performing schools.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Yonkers Public Schools, just north of New York City, is home to 26,000 students and two chronically failing schools. The Department of Education in Washington, D.C., gave New York state around $4 million to help Yonkers turn those schools around. But because of a dispute, Yonkers Superintendent Bernard Pierorazio says he may have to pull the plug on those projects.
BERNARD PIERORAZIO: We have 19 staff members attached to this grant, you know, as well as contracts with national consulting groups that are coming in and working with our staff.
ABRAMSON: The reason for the holdup? Yonkers and nine other districts have not come to a final agreement with the unions on new evaluation systems for teachers and principals. Those evaluation systems were mandated by state law over a year ago, and they have to link teacher assessment to students' performance.
But negotiations are complicated. Pat Puleo, of the Yonkers Federation of Teachers, says it's hard to figure out how to evaluate teachers in subjects that are not tested.
PAT PULEO: Guidance counselors, art teachers, music teachers - there are not state tests that the children take, so we have to come up with a rainbow of evaluation systems for everyone.
ABRAMSON: Puleo says the state knew these talks would take time. But then, over the holidays, New York Education Commissioner John King announced districts must finish negotiations or risk losing millions of dollars. King says one of the reasons these schools are failing is the lack of effective evaluations.
JOHN KING: The evaluations are really about a vehicle for improving student achievement and obviously, that's particularly urgent in these schools who've performed so poorly for so long.
ABRAMSON: Some districts are further along than others. They all can appeal the commissioner's decisions to suspend those grants. But in the meantime, they have to figure out whether to lay off people hired with that money, and then possibly hire them back.
The dispute also threatens millions in federal aid under Race to the Top, another big federal effort that depends heavily on new evaluation systems for teachers and school leaders.
Larry Abramson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.