By MICHAEL WINERIP | NY Times
Published: August 14, 2011
In December, the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, Merryl H. Tisch, announced a new program: 13 research fellows would be selected to advise the education commissioner and the 17-member board. The fellows would be paid as much as $189,000 each, in private money; to date, $4.5 million has been raised, including $1 million donated by Dr. Tisch, a member of one of New York’s wealthiest families.
The chancellor sees the program as a way to add resources and expertise at a time of severe budget cutting (state financing of the Education Department is down 35 percent since 2009). She said the fellows would help ensure that the $700 million federal Race to the Top grant New York was awarded last year was properly spent.
“People in the department were burning out,” Dr. Tisch said. “This was a great way to enhance our capacity.”
As Dr. Tisch put it, what’s not to like about free fellows?
Plenty, according to several current and former board members.
Public education has never been so divided, between those like Dr. Tisch, Commissioner John B. King Jr. and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg who support the Obama administration’s signature Race to the Top initiative and its emphasis on standardized tests and charter schools; and dissenters on the board, who call it a Race to the Bottom and put their faith in teachers as well as traditional public schools. The Race to the Bottom folks warn that the supposedly free fellows come at a stiff political price.
The Bottoms: “Private people give money to support things they’re interested in,” said Roger B. Tilles, a lawyer and longtime education administrator who has been a regent for six years.
Those donors include Bill Gates ($892,000), who is leading the charge to evaluate teachers, principals and schools using students’ test scores; the National Association of Charter School Administrators ($50,000) and the Robbins Foundation ($500,000), which finance charter expansion; and the Tortora Sillcox Family Foundation ($500,000), whose mission statement includes advancing “Mayor Bloomberg’s school reform agenda.”
Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Gates are expert at using philanthropy in a way that pressures government to follow their public policy agendas.
The Tops: Dr. Tisch and Dr. King emphasize the fellows’ education credentials and administrative experience. Three of the 11 named so far have doctorates; four are Ivy League graduates; two have law degrees. One worked for New York City’s Education Department overseeing the development of the 32-variable mathematical formula used to evaluate teachers. Five have worked for charters, like the commissioner.
The Bottoms: Betty A. Rosa, who spent 23 years as a teacher and principal before becoming a New York City regional superintendent and a regent, said it was “absolutely wrong” that the fellows had spent what she considered to be so little time working in schools. Six of the 11 have never taught. The five others have a total of 10 years in the classroom and one as a principal.
The Bottoms: Saul B. Cohen, a former president of Queens College who retired in December after 18 years as a regent, is angry that the board was not consulted about selecting the fellows. “They’re supposed to be advising us, but we had no role,” he said.
Dr. Cohen was also upset that the state’s Race to the Top application — which included major policy decisions like using student test results to evaluate teachers and principals — was not shown to the Regents before it was submitted to Washington. “The board had to rubber-stamp it after the fact,” he said.
Dr. Rosa said the Regents saw only “bits and pieces” of the application beforehand.
Several board members said they had been marginalized under Dr. Tisch, who took over in 2009 and is widely considered to be the most powerful, controlling chancellor in memory.
The Tops: Dr. King said that picking the fellows was the commissioner’s decision and that there was no legal requirement to consult the Regents. He said that the Race to the Top application was completed right at the deadline and that there was no time to show the Regents. At previous meetings they had been consulted on the main policy issues, he said.
The Bottoms: After 10 months of meetings in Albany, a task force of 63 educators from all over the state concluded in April that students’ scores on state tests should count for no more than 20 percent of an evaluation of teachers and principals. Instead, the commissioner adopted the position favored by the fellows: that up to 40 percent of an evaluation could be based on state tests.
John E. Bierwirth, superintendent of the Herricks School District on Long Island, said he believed the decision was preordained. At task force meetings, he said, he tried to get fellows to reveal their thinking. “I said tell us your conclusions and give us a chance to react; they wouldn’t,” he recalled.
After putting in so many hours, Dr. Bierwirth said, “some of us felt used; I felt irrelevant.”
The Tops: Dr. King said that people understood from the beginning that the task force was advisory, and that 80 to 90 percent of its recommendations were adopted. “Their work was of great value,” he said. He pointed out that only 20 percent of the evaluation was required to be based on state tests; each district, subject to agreement with the local union, will decide whether to use them for the other 20 percent.
The Bottoms: Several regents complained that it had been hard to prepare for board meetings because in recent years, agenda items had been posted on the Internet so late. Dr. Cohen called this a bureaucratic strategy to weaken the board’s role.
The Tops: Dr. Tisch said the only reason the postings had been late was a lack of staff.
The Bottoms: Race to the Top requires states to develop student-data collection systems. Recently the Education Department awarded a $27 million no-bid contract to Wireless Generation, a company owned by Rupert Murdoch and overseen by a former New York City chancellor, Joel I. Klein. Mr. Klein is a good friend of Dr. Tisch.
Mr. Tilles said that at a closed executive session of the Regents, he and several others told Dr. Tisch and Dr. King that they were concerned about the appearance of favoritism.
“We raised it and were dismissed,” he said. Mr. Tilles and Dr. Rosa said the contract should be put out for bid.
The Tops: State officials said discussions with Wireless Generation had begun long before Mr. Klein joined the company.
Dr. King said the contract was not put out for bid because the state was under pressure to meet a Race to the Top deadline and the Wireless Generation system was already compatible with New York City’s data system.
“At the executive session a lot of people asked a lot of detailed questions,” Dr. King said, but no action was taken.
“The board doesn’t participate in the selection of vendors,” he added.
The state comptroller’s office is investigating whether it was proper to award the contract without bidding.