Dr. Merryl Tisch is probably the most powerful person in the state of New York that you have never heard of. As Chancellor of the Board of Regents for the powerful University of the State of New York, Dr. Tisch oversees a body that has all responsibility for overseeing and accrediting every educational institution in the state of New York from all public and private elementary and secondary schools, to nearly 250 public and private colleges and universities, to libraries and museums, to state historical societies, to public broadcasting facilities, to 47 licensed professions, to adult and career education services, to the official state archives. Chancellor Tisch and her fellow Regents are appointed by the state legislature to five-year terms. Dr. Tisch, a former first grade teacher in Jewish schools with a doctorate from Teachers College at Columbia University, has served on the Board of Regents continuously since 1996 and has been Chancellor since 2009. With such far reaching powers and responsibilities, it is possible that the Chancellorship of the Board of Regents is the most powerful position in the state of New York that is not subject to election.
Chancellor Tisch is not adverse to taking harsh and public stances, and in 2011 even criticized the Bloomberg administration, which was never shy about going after allegedly failing schools, for not showing enough progress in the kind of numbers driven school improvement in favor today. The Chancellor is also enthusiastic about the grinding state examination schedule that has been instituted from Albany, claiming that she “understands” the test anxiety felt by students but that the need for change is so urgent that “We have to just jump into the deep end.” Blogger Jersey Jazzman notes that her understanding is an odd claim from a Chancellor who has never attended a school that believes in high stakes testing, has never taught in a school that believes in high stakes testing, and has never sent her own children to a school that believes in high stakes testing.
With such positions on education and reform, it should come as little surprise that Chancellor Tisch joined Governor Andrew Cuomo on the “If-It-Is-Sunday-It-Is-Time-To-Throw-Mayor-de Blasio-Under-The-Bus” parade by announcing that she wants to “aggressively” pursue more charter schools, and that the Mayor’s plan to turn around 94 of the city’s most troubled schools has until Spring before the Board of Regents moves to start closing them down. Mayor de Blasio’s plan, which was only unveiled on November 3rd, will task $150 million over a three year period to transform most of the schools into “Community Schools” that do not simply seek improved academics, but also focus upon embedded social and community services to address many of the difficulties students face at home and in the community. The schools will need to demonstrate improvement in attendance and academic performance, can turn over staff if needed, and may still face shutdown if they fail to improve in the given timeline.
Chancellor Tisch sounded less than impressed:
“It depends upon what they do with the money,” Tisch said. “There needs to be the capacity to manage how and where we place our teachers.”
The main issue, according to Tisch, is that the principals need leverage to fire educators if they don’t meet standards.
“It’s not just saying, ‘We’re gonna fix these schools,’” she said. “You gotta give the new principals and assistant principals the ability to hire the teachers that they want and fire the teachers that they don’t want.”
Her chosen metric of improvement appears to be how quickly the schools start to turn over staff: “From the state’s perspective, if we do not see movement with these lowest-performing schools in terms of their ability to retool their workforces by the spring, we will move to close them.”
Mayor de Blasio outlined a three year timeline for improvement. Chancellor Tisch says that he has about three months. Mayoral control of the New York City Schools apparently is only for people in Dr. Tisch’s personal Rolodex.
What exactly does Chancellor Tisch mean when she demands to see such a quick “ability to retool their workforces”? I have to agree with author of the Raginghorseblog, who teaches at one of the 94 schools in question and who writes here that Dr. Tisch mainly wants to see school administrators given free reign to fire masses of teachers regardless of their current due process rights. Dr. Tisch is an intelligent person who fully knows that the Mayor cannot demonstrate significantly academic gains in these schools by Spring, so she is telling him that he is officially between a rock and a hard place. If he does not move to pick a massive fight with the teacher’s union over firing large numbers of teachers without due process, then he will have a fight with the Board of Regents who will veto his school improvement proposal by shuttering the schools in question.
Doing this to a mayor who, in theory, has direct control of the city schools is stunningly disrespectful, but it has also become a popular pastime in Albany since the departure of Mayor Bloomberg. Governor Cuomo did it last Spring by orchestrating a charter school rally in Albany on the same day that Mayor de Blasio was there to rally support for universal pre-K in the city. The Governor did it again just before the election by declaring his intentions to make teacher evaluations even harder in the state even as Mayor de Blasio’s Chancellor, Carmen Farina, has been working to take the harsher edges off of school evaluations in the city. Both Governor Cuomo and Dr. Tisch want to raise the cap on charter schools in the city and state and will likely pursue that with the legislature. This is despite the growing evidence that the charter school sector, as currently regulated, concentrates more and more highly disadvantaged students into the remaining fully public schools which, unsurprisingly, continue to struggle. The cycle, favored by billionaire Wall Street figures who donate heavily to both the charter schools and to politicians who support them, is pernicious enough that it invokes near conspiratorial overtones: declare fully public schools to be failing, close them, open up charter schools which attract families able to go through the application and lottery process, concentrate higher proportions of struggling students into remaining fully public schools, allow charter schools to push out harder to accommodate children, declare remaining fully public schools even bigger failures than before, close more of them and open more charter schools.
And for good measure, it must be noted that people are making fistfuls of money promoting this cycle of dislocation, concentration of disadvantage, and more dislocation. It is also worth noting at this point that Dr. Tisch is married to the heir of the Loews Coporation, a diversified company involved in insurance, oil and gas exploration, and luxury hotel and resort properties, that has over $79 billion in total assets. Her husband, James Tisch, owned, with several family members, stock worth $3.2 billion in 2012. The people making money off of charter schools are in the same circle of financial titans as the Tisch family.
And now, it appears, Chancellor Tisch has given Mayor de Blasio, who ran as a progressive friend of New York City’s working families, an ultimatum: force a showdown with the teachers’ union and join the war to undermine what is left of American labor — or the Board of Regents will steamroll you.
I wish I could be surprised.