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Regents Pay a Political Price for Their Free Advisers, Dissenters Warn

Ohanian Comment: Thank you, Michael Winerip, for once again exposing how private money dominates public school policy.

Merryl Tisch is the daughter-in-law of Loew's CEO. Her own children went to private schools, and she concludes from their taking test prep for the SATs that test prep provides a good tool for learning. (New York Times, March 6,2002) Not surprisngly, when asked to grade the mayor for his takeover of New York City's schools, Tisch gave him a B, saying, "The whole reorganization has been a plus." (NY Post June 14, 2004). Rich people stand together. The question is: Who Stands for Children?

Tisch says people employed by the NY State Board of Education were burning out. So these $189,000 a year advisors were hired to help out. And how many thousands of New York City teachers were given pink slips?

Tisch calls these advisors "free fellows." Because they're paid for with "philanthropic donations." Winerip wisely points out: Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Gates are expert at using philanthropy in a way that pressures government to follow their public policy agendas.

Bill Gates pays; public schools obey.

Tisch donated $1 million to this research fellow fund.

Here, from New York State School Boards Association, is a description of the first fellows hired:

The first four recipients of Regents Research Fellowships are: Kristen Huff, senior fellow for assessment; Amy McIntosh, senior fellow for teacher and principal effectiveness; Peter Swerdzewski, fellow for assessment; and Julia Rafal, fellow for teacher and principal effectiveness.

Huff spent seven years directing assessment design, research, and development programs at the College Board. She played a senior leadership role in the redesign of Advanced Placement courses and exams and the design of new SkillInsight reports for SAT. Her annual salary will be $189,500.

McIntosh has spent nearly 30 years serving in government, education and private sector leadership and management positions. Most recently, she served for six years in senior roles at the New York City Department of Education. As chief talent officer, she helped develop the system to measure the performance of thousands of elementary and middle school teachers in New York. She formerly served as CEO of Zagat Survey and senior vice president of D&B, one of the world̢۪s leading providers of business information. She will earn $175,075.

Swerdzewski was most recently an assessment consultant to the New York City Department of Education. He previously worked with the College Board as an assistant research scientist. A 2002 graduate of James Madison University, he received his Ph.D. in Assessment and Measurement from JMU and worked with the university̢۪s Center for Assessment and Research Studies on higher education assessment and accountability initiatives. He also served as an adjunct professor for assessment and public policy at the school. His salary has been set at $102,500.

Rafal is an education policy researcher and was most recently a manager for New Profit, a non-profit venture philanthropy fund involved with education and other critical social issues. Rafal began her career with Teach For America as a special education teacher in New York City. She also worked as an education consultant and strategic advisor to charter and public schools in New York City and Washington, D.C. Her salary is $98,500.

By Michael Winerip

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 they̢۪re 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.

E-mail: oneducation@nytimes.com

— Michael Winerip
New York Times





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