The New York Civil Liberties Union today urged New York State’s top education officials to adopt initiatives to combat school bullying and to implement alternative school discipline models before submitting the state’s second application for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal “Race to the Top” education funding. By making these changes, the state can increase its score by 7-15 points, according to an NYCLU analysis.

“The Race to the Top competition is a unique opportunity to secure federal funding to provide all New York students with safe, nurturing schools,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Proposals to stop bullying and adopt innovative discipline alternatives will strengthen the state’s application for this much-needed federal money.”

In a letter sent today, the NYCLU urged Education Commissioner David Steiner and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch to encourage state legislators to pass the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) prior to the June 1 Race to the Top application deadline. DASA, which has passed the Assembly multiple times only to stall in the Senate, would combat bias-based harassment and bullying in state public schools through preventive education and training for teachers and school staff. The bill would require reporting on all incidents of bullying, which meets the Race to the Top program’s emphasis on capturing a wide array of data that impacts student achievement.

By passing DASA, New York State will be able to integrate information on harassment and bullying with information on attendance, discipline and grades. DASA will support the creation of an advanced early warning system, which Race to the Top encourages, that will allow teachers, administrators and policymakers to intervene in situations that indicate whether a student, or a student population, is at risk of educational failure.

The NYCLU also called for the inclusion of non-punitive discipline models, such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a data-driven approach to reducing disciplinary incidents in schools while enhancing school safety. The premise of PBIS is that continual teaching and rewarding of positive student behavior reduces unnecessary discipline while promoting a climate of productivity, safety and learning. In its Race to the Top announcement, the U.S. Education Department encouraged states to implement PBIS as a way to transform the lowest-achieving schools.

Additionally, the NYCLU advised that the state demonstrate a commitment to restorative justice programs, a dispute resolution tool that encourages all sides of a dispute, victims and offenders, to be involved in addressing misconduct at school. Schools throughout the U.S. and Europe have successfully implemented restorative justice practices to reduce suspension and dropout rates.

“We are concerned that New York’s policymakers have focused too heavily on charter schools and teacher evaluations as the only way to improve our state’s Race to the Top score,” said NYCLU Advocacy Director Udi Ofer. “There are other innovative ways to improve New York’s chances of securing federal funding. The proposals described in our letter meet many of the Race to the Top program’s requirements and would undoubtedly strengthen the state’s application, while also providing for safer and better schools.”

In its final rule on the Race to the Top competition, the U.S. Department of Education stated:

We acknowledge that positive behavioral interventions and supports, as well as other systemic programs and policies that address bullying, student harassment, and disciplinary problems, are important to consider in ensuring that students have a safe and supportive environment in which to learn.

The economic stimulus package President Obama signed into law in February 2009 provided $4.35 billion for the Race to the Top fund. Forty states, including New York, and the District of Columbia applied for the first round of funding. In March, the federal government awarded grants to two states, Delaware and Tennessee. New York’s first-round application lost points in several categories, including the use of data to support and improve education, and efforts to turn around low-achieving schools.