Bianca Tanis, teacher and parent in the public schools of Néw York, is an active member of NYSAPE, a large group of parents and educators.
In this post, she asks whether the Chancellor of New York’s Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, violated the law by writing a letter to Governor Cuomo expressing her policy views without consulting other members of the Board.
If she did, Tanis argues, she should step down.
The letter in question was Chancellor Tisch’s response to Jim Malatras, Governor Cuomo’s director of state operations. It contained a series of recommendations that soon became the basis of the Governor’s “reform” plan.
“On December 31st, 2014, Chancellor Merryl Tisch responded to Jim Malatras and the Governor with a twenty-page letter co-signed by Elizabeth Berlin as “Acting Commissioner of Education” although her tenure in this position would not begin for several days. In her response, Chancellor Tisch outlined recommendations that the Governor eliminate the use of locally selected measures in teacher evaluations in favor of a significant increase on the reliance on state test scores, increase the powers of the state to close struggling schools and implement a receivership model, maintain Mayoral control in NYC, implement financial incentives for high performing teachers, and increase the teacher probationary period from 3 to 5 years.
“Chancellor Tisch began her response by writing, “The Board of Regents agrees that one of the State’s most important obligations is educating our children” and “…the Board of Regents and the State Education Department (“SED” or “the Department”) appreciate the opportunity to opine on the issues raised in your letter…”
“It seems clear that Chancellor Tisch made the reasonable presumption that a letter addressed to the leader of a democratically elected, 17 member board tasked with overseeing public education in NYS sought the input of the entire Board of Regents, not private citizen Merryl Tisch. This presumption is also evidenced by Chancellor Tisch’s use of Board of Regents letterhead and the inclusion of her letter on the NYS Department of Education’s website.
“Given the serious nature of the questions posed by the Governor (who only months before characterized public education as a “monopoly” that he vowed to break) and the jarring recommendations contained in Tisch’s response, one might presume that the Chancellor had consulted with her fellow Regents before responding on their behalf.
“However, in keeping with what seems to be a pattern of blatant disregard for transparency, the principles of democracy and the concerns of the public, it appears that Chancellor Tisch failed to confer with her fellow Regents when crafting her response and recommendations on their behalf, recommendations made devoid of any basis in research or scholarship and without any chance for public input or debate. To date, there is not a single mention of the Jim Malatras’ December 18th letter or Chancellor Tisch’s December 31st response in ANY Board of Regents agenda or meeting summary.
“This raises some troubling questions. Did Chancellor Tisch violate the procedural rules that govern the Board of Regents? And even more troubling, did the Chancellor violate open meeting laws stipulated in Article 7 of the Public Officer’s Law which state:
“It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.”
Three weeks later, Governor Cuomo said in his State of the State address that he had asked the State Education Department for its recommendations and was acting upon them. He obviously was referring to the Tisch-Berlin letter.
Did Tisch and not-yet acting commissioner Berlin express their personal views? Or did the letter express the openly discussed and agreed-upon views of the Regents as a whole?
Apparently Chancellor Tisch wrote as an individual. Tanis writes:
“Although Chancellor Tisch speaks from the perspective of “The Board” several times in her letter, Tisch expressed to the media that her letter was not meant to represent the positions of the entire Board of Regents. Chancellor Tisch is quoted as saying; “I was asked a set of very direct questions…The letter was directed to me.”
Tanis believes that the Chancellor usurped the authority of the Board of Regents without their knowledge or permission to advocate for flawed policies.
“Despite hundreds of thousands of letters, emails and phone calls from parents, despite dozens of rallies and forums protesting the over-emphasis on state test scores and decrying the harmful effects on our children, despite a massive test refusal movement, despite overwhelming evidence that test-based accountability systems do not lead to increased academic achievement, and despite the fact that the achievement gap for students in poverty, students of color and students with disabilities has widened since the implementation of Common Core state assessments, Chancellor Tisch usurped the voice of her fellow board members and instructed the Governor to double down on the misuse of these flawed tests.
“Chancellor Tisch’s disregard for the concerns of parents and her attempts to steer public education outside of the democratic process must end. The Chancellor must step down and make room for those who will lead with integrity and protect our children from a political agenda that renders them collateral damage. Failing Chancellor Tisch’s willingness to step down, her fellow Regents and members of the Legislature must call for her to be stripped of her Chancellorship and for an immediate inquiry into the ethics and legality of her actions.”
Bianca Tanis is an elementary special education teacher and public school parent in New York’s Hudson Valley. Bianca is a co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education, which is allied with over 50 parent and education organizations across New York State. She is a frequent blogger on educational topics and speaks at education forums across New York State. As a special education teacher and a parent of a child with special needs, Bianca has been an outspoken critic of both high stakes testing and the Common Core Learning Standards and has worked to raise awareness of the devastating effects that these reforms have had on all children, but in particular, students with disabilities and English language learners.