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Race to the Top, the Broadway Version

Competitions for cash are good, and they're good for education specifically, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told lawmakers yesterday in his first state-of-the-state address.

The newly elected Democrat proposed the creation of two separate $250 million competitions for local school districts, one of which would reward them for academic improvements, the other for finding innovative ways to cut costs.

His proposals fit the theme of the speech, in which Cuomo basically told lawmakers that the state (like many others around the country) needs to start doing more with less and get a grip on spending, or face serious economic consequences. Residents of many local communities are already suffering under the weight of high taxes, and the state faces a deficit that Cuomo estimated at $10 billion and likely to grow, barring state action. He said he wanted to shift at least a portion of state funding for education away from formula funds, hence the creation of the two competitions worth $500 million.

Cuomo likened his proposal to the $4.35 billion federal Race to the Top program, which he praised as driving innovations through cash incentives. It was probably a popular reference for Cuomo to make, given that New York last year walked away as a $700 million winner in the federal competition.

"A school district gets their numerical formula and that's what they're going to get; whether they do a good job, a bad job, it doesn't matter," Cuomo said. "They get the same level of funding every year. The federal government is actually more innovative in this area. They're doing it now in the area of education where they run competitions, and for example, when they fund a state government, if the state government wants to qualify for the federal money, they have to win the competition.

"Competition works," Cuomo said, adding: "When you just give people cash with no results, you take the incentives out of the system."

A $500 million competition might seem like a lot of money in a state the size of New York. But you also have to wonder if other state leaders will think about creating similar incentives, as they scour state budgets in search of cash in the lean years ahead.

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