Huffpost Education
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Alan Singer Headshot

New York's Secret Educational Policy Makers

Posted: Updated:

The Albany Times Union calls it a "shadow government" within the New York State Education Department. It is supported by $19 million in donations from wealthy individuals and foundations. The "Regents Research Fund" fellows are a private think tank embedded in the public education department that is defining education for New York's 3.1 million public school students. They frame policy, consult regularly with State Education Commissioner John King, and interact with state employees and officials, but they are not covered by the state's Public Officer's Law or ethics rules.

In December 2010, Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents announced that thirteen Regents Research Fellows would report to and advise John King and the seventeen-member board. Instead of making them state employees subject to review and public accountability, the fellows were paid by a private funds. This included a $1 million donation by Tisch herself. Tisch is a member of one of New York's wealthiest real estate clans. At the time, Tisch claimed this "philanthropic" approach was necessary because the state faced severe budget restraints and "People in the department were burning out." The primary job of the Regents Research Fellows was to ensure that the state's $700 million federal Race to the Top grant was spent properly spent. The Regents Research Fund fellows are now a team of over two dozen highly paid analysts earning almost $200,000 a year.

From the start there were reasons to question the legitimacy of this quasi-public body. I have searched both the Internet and the New York State Board of Regents website and I can find no definitive list of Regents Research fellows, although I was able to assemble a partial list based on press releases and their individual Linkedin postings.

According to a New York Times report, three of the eleven original fellows had doctorates and four were Ivy League graduates. Two were lawyers and one worked for the New York City Department of Education setting up the algorithm to evaluate teachers based on student test scores. Five of the research fellows originally worked for charter schools where they had a total of ten years of classroom experience. Six of the eleven fellows advising the commissioner and the Regents on educational policy never taught at all.

The Regents Research Fellows plan was not without dissenters. According to Saul Cohen, a former president of Queens College who retired as a regent in December 2010, the board was not consulted about selecting the fellows. Commissioner John King's response to Cohen's complaint was that picking the research fellows was his responsibility and there was no legal requirement that he consult with the Regents.

This meant that King and Tisch were free to use the fellows to promote their own agenda's while ignoring professional educators. In April 2011, an Albany task force consisting of sixty-three experienced educators from around the state recommended that student test scores count for no more than twenty percent of teachers and principal evaluations. But King adopted the recommendation 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, complained that the task force tried to get the fellows to explain their point of view, but that the fellows refused.

Another dissenter was Regent Roger Tilles, who pointed out in a New York Times interview, "Private people give money to support things they're interested in." Tilles' warning is well taken. Other donors to the Regents Research Fellows program included Bill Gates, who advocates evaluating teachers, principals and schools based on students' scores on high-stakes standardized tests; the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the Robbins Foundation which are pushing for more charter schools; and the Tortora Sillcox Family Foundation, supporters of the now suspect Bloomberg plan to replace larger high schools with smaller, supposedly better performing, units. Money for the fellows is also coming in from Hewlett Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Tiger Foundation, Robin Hood Foundation, the Helmsley Trust and General Electric.

Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Long Island's Rockville Centre calls the fellows agents of destructive policies. She questions who they are serving -- the Board of Regents, or the wealthy patricians who pay the fellows' salaries.

The initial group of Regents Research fellows included, Matthew Gross, executive director of the fund, who previously recruited business leaders to partner with schools. Gross was originally a Teach for America recruit. Other fellows were Kristen Huff, a former College Board research director who developed their advanced placement and SAT testing programs; Amy McIntosh, formerly CEO of Zagat Survey and a senior vice president at a company that provides business information, previously developed teacher and principal effectiveness strategies for the New York City Department of Education; Julia Rafal, fellow for teacher and principal effectiveness was a TFA graduate and consultant for charter schools; and Kate Gerson. Gerson is promoted as a former New York City teacher and school principal who brings legitimate educational credentials and experience to the table. The reality however is that Gerson only worked for two years at a transfer school for over-aged-under-credited students before leaving for an organization called New Leaders for Schools.

Later fellows have included Peter Swerdzewski, a psychometrics specialist from the College Board; Joshua Marland, another a psychometrics specialist; Jason Schweid, also recruited from the College Board; Joshua Skolnick, an attorney, assumed Gross's management and fund raising responsibilities when Gross resigned; TFA graduates Ha My Vu and Joyce Macek; Beth Wurtmann, a television reporter; Jennifer Sattem; Doug Jaffe, a lawyer; Anu Malipatil, a TFA graduate and charter school advocate who also works for the Two Sigma Investment company; and Wendy Perdomo, a New York City DOE bureaucrat with no apparent teaching experience.

I am generally not a big supporter of demands for transparency in government; I do not think transparency itself achieves very much when powerful financial interests set the political agenda. I would rather see political campaigns based on ideas and programs. But this case is such a blatant effort to conceal the education policy decision-making process by using private funding and foundations that the people behind it including Commissioner King and Regent Tisch should be called to account and forced to resign.