Chancellor Tisch Must Take Responsibility for Causing Harm to Students with Disabilities and Pushing Admittedly “Incomprehensible” Tests on New York’s Most Vulnerable Children

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By Marla Kilfoyle and Bianca Tanis

For some time now, the parents of New York have been in full revolt over the testing requirements set down by both federal and state leadership. Parents of children with special needs have been extremely vocal about the fact that Common Core state tests in grades 3-8 are abusive and inappropriate for their children. You can read examples of parents informing Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch that these tests have harmed their children with special needs here, here, here, and here. Despite anecdotal stories of children engaging in self-injury and soiling themselves during state testing, Merryl Tisch blatantly ignored parent concerns and allowed testing abuses to continue. As a result, New York is experiencing the largest parent test revolt in education history.

One of the most public examples of parents voicing their concerns was in the fall of 2013 when Chancellor Tisch listened to hundreds of parents speak out about the harmful effects of New York’s new Common Core tests on their children with disabilities. At first it seemed that some of what she heard at a series of town hall style meetings and forums had made an impact. Shortly after the forums, Chancellor Tisch announced that the state would be requesting a waiver for students with special needs from federal No Child Left Behind testing mandates that she called “cruel and unusual.”

But the Chancellor’s concern was short-lived. Despite calling these tests “cruel and unusual”, Chancellor Tisch spent the next eighteen months attempting to convince parents and the media that any attempts to opt children out of state testing would deprive parents and educators of the meaningful data needed to help struggling students.

In fact, just a few months ago, Chancellor Tisch penned an editorial in which she criticized parents who planned to opt out of state assessments by asserting that opt out hurts the neediest children, characterizing opt out as “putting blinders on.”

In her editorial, Chancellor Tisch states:

“It used to be easy to ignore the most vulnerable students….Without an objective measure of their progress, it was easy to deny special education students and English Language Learners the extra resources they need. Obviously we still need to do more for those students, but now is not the time to put blinders back on.”

Tisch went on to minimize the concerns of parents who refuse state tests by writing:

In short, test refusal is a mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing. Those who call for “opting out” really want New York to “opt out” of information that can help parents and teachers understand how well students are doing. We cannot go back to ignoring the needs of our children. It’s time to stop making noise to protect the adults and start speaking up for the students.

In April of 2015 Chancellor Tisch continued to downplay parental concerns,  painting the opt out movement as a “labor dispute” between teacher unions and the Governor.

Yet on Monday, July 20th 2015, the very same Chancellor who chastised parents for opting out of assessments made the following public statement:

“Personally, I would say that if I was the mother of a student with a certain type of disability, I would think twice before I allowed my child to sit through an exam that was incomprehensible to them.”

For parents who have spent years working to raise awareness about the harmful effects of high stakes testing, especially for students with disabilities, this statement was baffling. And in light of the Chancellor’s continued failure to respond to parental concerns, this statement was infuriating. While the Chancellor supported a federal waiver that would offer a modicum of protection for some students, she failed to make even a single change at the state level that would spell relief for students with disabilities.

As Chancellor of the Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch is keenly aware of the fact that a current 5th grade student with a disability who receives a testing accommodation of extended time may sit for as long as 9 hours over the course of 3 days for a single exam. Despite being aware of this and other egregious examples of abuse, the Chancellor has done nothing to lessen the duration of testing or to mitigate the harm to students. Rather, she has overseen changes to the New York State testing program that have doubled and in some instances, tripled the length of testing and allowed the inclusion of reading passages years above grade level.

While many parents have been able to protect their children by refusing the state tests in grades 3-8, a handful of districts still require that a student verbally refuse the test themselves, despite the fact that some of these children are unable to verbally refuse due to the nature of their disability. So while the Chancellor claims she would “think twice” before opting a special needs child into these tests, she has failed to exercise the power of the Board of Regents to enact a regulation requiring school districts to not only recognize, but inform parents of their right to refuse “cruel and unusual” testing mandates on behalf of their children.

The implications of Tisch’s most recent statement go beyond test refusal. Teachers in New York are now mandated to align Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals with the Common Core Standards which are not always in alignment with the needs of a student. If the Chancellor would think twice before having a child sit through an exam that was incomprehensible to them,” would she also think twice before compelling that child to receive instruction that is beyond their current level of academic achievement?

The Chancellor’s actions are tantamount to sitting by and not only watching, but commissioning the abuse of the most vulnerable children. Her failure to inform special needs parents of the potential for harm while simultaneously encouraging them to subject their children to inappropriate tests is inexcusable.

Merryl Tisch should immediately relinquish her Chancellorship and step down from the Board of Regents. Failing her resignation, parents and educators must urge their legislators NOT to reappoint to Merryl Tisch to the Board of Regents when her term expires next year. New York needs education leadership that will protect our children, not lead them to harm.

Marla Kilfoyle is a Parent, Educator, and the General Manager of BATs

Bianca Tanis is a Parent, Educator and Co-Founder of NYS Allies for Public Education

NYS Teachers Demanding New NYSUT Leadership in the Wake of AFT Endorsement

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Teachers across the country are up in arms over the American Federation of Teacher’s (AFT) endorsement of Hillary Clinton. But the AFT and AFT president Randi Weingarten should not bear the full brunt of the profession’s ire, as this was not the decision of one person, but rather the entire AFT executive council. Here in New York, we must look to our own state union and demand some transparency and accountability or at the very least, an explanation.

On July 9th the AFT announced its endorsement of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential candidate. Five days later, NYSUT’s webpage and twitter feed do not include a single mention of an endorsement that has made headlines around the nation, nor is there any mention on either the UFT or UUP (United University Professions) website.
Many find this omission strange considering that NYSUT employs a fulltime director of communications. Certainly an endorsement of a Democratic presidential candidate 6 months before the Democratic primary warrants some type of member engagement.

Looking at the AFT’s leadership team, the reason for the omission becomes crystal clear. NYSUT president Karen Magee, vice presidents Andy Pallotta, Catalina Fortino, Paul Pecorale, Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner, UFT president Michael Mulgrew, and UUP president Fred Kowal are all vice presidents of the AFT, and therefore part of the very same executive council who voted for the Clinton endorsement. Given the outrage over the AFT endorsement, it makes sense that NYSUT, UFT, and UUP leadership would distance themselves as far as possible from their own culpability in this fiasco.

Tweets and emails to NYSUT leadership requesting an accounting of their votes have gone unanswered but one thing seems clear, NYSUT leaders are desperate to keep their hands clean and stay above the fray.

Perhaps NYSUT leadership is hoping that the anger of its members towards the AFT will distract them from the fact that NYSUT has provided zero member education regarding any primary candidate’s platform or voting record on education. Or perhaps NYSUT is hoping that its membership will fail to register that union leadership has just given away any chance for members to voice their preference or concerns.

A video of NYSUT at-large director and executive board member Don Carlisto praising Hillary Clinton (Carlisto calls Clinton “personable and funny”) is included on the AFT’s website, but not on NYSUT’s website. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems clear that NYSUT leadership is hoping that we won’t notice the obvious – while a select few had a “say,” their members did not.

To be fair, we do not know how NYSUT leadership voted on the endorsement or which leaders were actually present at the vote. This is because they have not even acknowledged the endorsement, let alone their participation in the decision. But we can note with certainty the failure of NYSUT leadership to create an opportunity for members to influence the outcome of the AFT’s vote to endorse Clinton.

To their credit, NYSUT leadership has not attempted to convince the public that their members overwhelmingly support Clinton’s endorsement. Then again, how could they? No polls, surveys, or any other attempts at taking the pulse of NYSUT member support for a candidate has taken place.

NYSUT leaders have engaged in an epic failure to engage and inform their members (members who are required to pay dues to the AFT) but even more importantly, it appears that they have attempted to hide their involvement in the Clinton endorsement. Such an egregious lack of transparency and regard for the will of their membership will surely come at a cost.

Putting aside for the moment the fact that Hillary Clinton has not fully revealed her education platform (nor have any candidates), has voiced support of charter schools, and has never spoken out against the use of high stakes test scores to drive instruction and evaluate teachers and schools, many see Clinton as an obvious choice due to her ability to outspend other Democratic primary hopefuls. But the fact remains that an endorsement 6 months before the Democratic primary election is a giveaway. By holding out on their endorsement, the AFT and through its involvement, NYSUT, could have held out for an affirmation from Clinton that she will work to end our current system of test-driven, Common Core education and to ensure that schools are funded fairly.

NYSUT leadership has usurped any kind of democratic process for giving their members a voice. Social media seems to indicate that many New York educators support pro-union, anti-high stakes testing candidate Bernie Sanders, but the truth is, we will never know who NYSUT members would have supported for the Democratic primary because they were never asked. Not willing to be ignored or spoken for, rank and file teachers have ignited an impressive groundswell of support for Sanders that is taking hold in New York State and across the nation.

As the opt-out movement continues to grow, so will the demand for new leadership in NYSUT. But this time around, it will be teachers AND parents calling for change. Make no mistake, parents are increasingly aware of the fact that the current NYSUT leadership has the ear of both the legislature and the Board of Regents and that thus far, has failed to use this influence to protect teachers and students from the current “reform” policies that are destroying our schools.

As Kevin Glenn, a Long Island educator, parent, and founder of Lace to the Top so aptly stated, Hillary Clinton may have won an endorsement, but Randi Weingarten lost a union. With a slightly different twist, the same may be said in NY. While NYSUT leadership once again sold out its members to keep their seat at the table, they most certainly lost any credibility or hope for re-election to leadership positions in New York State.

What is the Center for Educational Innovation and Why Did They Get Over a Million Dollars of New York Taxpayer Money? (July 2016 Update)

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*July 2016 Update: Bullet Aid for the 2016-2017 fiscal year ( As outlined in Senate Resolution R6507, sponsored by Senator John Flanagan) allots $1,566,000 to Center for Educational Innovation $850,000 to Agudath Israel.

While many New York schools received an increase in school funding this year, the state’s formula for determining who gets what remains shrouded in mystery. Many schools, including some of the poorest in the state, will see little fiscal relief. Those districts often depend on “bullet aid” for an infusion of funding– funding that could save a teaching position, decrease class size, or restore an elective. The ability to give “bullet aid” is split between the Assembly and Senate, and each allocates its own set of grants.

Lawmakers use whatever criteria they want to decide which schools get money. “Bullet aid” distribution is not based on need or on the merit of a program. Rather, it is based on politics. This year’s budget allocated $42 million for the line item grants that make up bullet aid: $19 million for the Senate, and $23 million for the Assembly. The amount of money to be distributed is determined when the budget is passed and grantees are designated at a later date, according to Senate and Assembly resolutions.

Some school board members and school administrators noticed that their schools received little to no bullet aid from the Senate when it passed its “bullet aid” resolution on June 25th. So where did the aid go? Apparently quite a bit went not to schools, but to school “reformers”. The Center for Educational Innovation will receive two grants totaling a whopping $1,057,000. To put this amount into perspective, the highest grant awarded to a school district by the Senate this year was $150,000, with most school districts who received aid getting between $5 and $25,000. A grant in excess of a million dollars is startling. The only other group to receive such a generous windfall was Agudath Israel, which received “bullet aid” in the amount of $850,000. Indian River Central School District, the 2nd poorest district in NYS, received $29,000 in bullet aid, a paltry sum compared to the hundreds of thousands bestowed to the Center for Educational Innovation and Agudath Israel.

So who is the Center for Educational Innovation and how did they merit such a windfall? The Center for Educational Innovation (CEI) is a nonprofit education organization based in New York City. According to their website, CEI is “a recognized leader in advancing meaningful reforms in public education,” and provides services such as charter school design and development, restructuring of large schools into smaller learning communities, and turnaround support for low performing schools. CEI has a long history of receiving large, taxpayer funded grants. In 2007, CEI received a 10 million dollar grant from the United States Department of Education, and another in 2011 for 17.5 million dollars. Both grants were earmarked for establishing performance-based incentive programs for teachers, based on the very same tests that hundreds of thousands of New York Parents have rallied against.

Both CEI and Agudath Israel (along with many other reformer groups) have spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying the NYS legislature. According to CEI’s 2012 tax return, CEI “uses lobbying firms to meet on its behalf with NYS assembly and senate members to secure funding for special legislative grants.”

Each organization is also a member of the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, a coalition of pro-privatization and “reform” groups responsible for an aggressive and expensive lobbying campaign in support of Governor Cuomo’s failed Invest in Education tax credit, which would have funneled millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools. David Zweib, executive vice president of Agudath Israel sits on the board of the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, and during his tenure as a board member the organization has donated over $300,000 to individual members of the NYS Legislature. It should be noted that the Coalition’s largest donation in 2014 was to Senator Jeffrey Klein, followed by Senator Martin Golden and Senator John Flanagan, former chair of the senate education committee and now leader of the NYS senate.

Senator Klein, Senator Flanagan, and Senator Golden have also received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Coalition for Public Charter Schools NY and StudentsFirstNY. Perhaps it is not surprising then that the Senate “bullet aid” resolution sponsored by both Senator Flanagan and Senator Klein funneled almost 2 million taxpayer dollars away from public schools and towards pro-“reform” and pro-privatization groups.

Like members of the Senate, CEI maintains close ties to wealthy “reformers”. In November of 2013, CEI held a gala honoring James Simons, one of the top pro-privatization donors in the 2014 NYS elections, contributing approximately 3 million dollars to “reform”-friendly politicians including Senator Flanagan. NYS Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch was honored at the very same Gala.

Speaking of Chancellor Tisch, it would seem that education reform is a family affair. Ann Tisch, sister-in-law of Chancellor Tisch, sits on the board of million-dollar “bullet aid” recipient CEI while the Chancellor’s brother-in-law, Thomas Tisch, sits on the board of the Coalition for Opportunity in Education. Andrew Tisch, husband of CEI board member Ann Tisch, is a director of K12 Inc., a for-profit education company that sells curriculum and online learning software to state and local governments. According to their website, K12 Inc. considers itself a proud and active member of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Despite these connections, New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch is allowed to oversee the implementation of the testing program responsible for providing the data upon which all of these organizations feed. And in perhaps the most egregious example of privatization minded “reform”, Chancellor Tisch famously led the creation of the privately funded Regents Fellows, a think tank funded by wealthy donors that has been given tremendous power within the New York State Department of Education, with little to no public oversight.

Clearly, New York State is ground zero for the toxic combination of money, influence, questionable “charitable organizations,” and a Senate for sale.

The movement to privatize and corporatize public education is not driven by parents or those concerned with social justice (as many “reformers” would have us believe), but rather by a wealthy and connected network of education “reform” cronies with money to spend on lobbying and political donations. And while our public schools are starving, these privatization efforts are being fueled by taxpayer dollars. Hundreds of thousands of New York parents object to the high stakes test driven policies and “reform” efforts funded by the Senate and under these circumstances, the opt out movement will surely continue to grow.