After making a splash last year, leaders of New York’s opt-out movement want their campaign to be more than a short-lived protest — and they’re taking bold steps to sustain its impact.
Last year, one in five students refused state tests amid widespread criticism of the state’s testing program. Now, the group leading that charge is endorsing candidates to serve on New York’s education policy-making body and has suggested changes to its bylaws — steps that are virtually unprecedented for outside groups.
The moves show that opt-out leaders are emboldened by their ability to mobilize parents and plan to leverage that momentum to gain a lasting foothold in state education policy.
“We’re not looking for someone to just be a dissenter,” said Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, about the opt-out advocacy group’s desired additions to the Board of Regents. “We want someone who’s going to bring solutions and make sure they’re going to include stakeholders.”
The opt-out movement’s efforts to influence the Board of Regents have raised eyebrows. Some wonder whether a group founded expressly to encourage parents to skip legally mandated state tests should have a say in statewide policy.
And others say it’s just weird for the movement to assert itself in the selection of members for a body designed to remain insulated from politics. Regents are selected by the legislature but then serve five-year terms.
“It does strike me as unusual,” said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant, about the movement’s decision to endorse Regents. “It would be as if the anti-frackers decided to interview candidates for the [Department of Environmental Conservation] commission.”
Opt-out leaders reject the criticism, arguing that since the Board of Regents represents the public, members of the public should have a say.
“We’re the people,” Rudley said. “We’re just parents and educators and volunteers.”
If successful, NYSAPE’s intervention could alter the direction of state education policy. Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Vice Chancellor Anthony Bottar will step down in March, paving the way for two new Regents to join the board and two new members to lead it.
Under Tisch, the board supported policies that included adopting the Common Core standards and using student test scores to evaluate teachers. The opt-out movement emerged as a response to the state’s shift to the Common Core, which critics said resulted in excessive and age-inappropriate tests, and continued controversy over the use of those scores to judge teacher performance. Leaders see the current moment as an opportunity to put the board on a new path.
They have been vetting prospective candidates for a while. Twenty-two of about 50 prospective Regents went through an exhaustive process to earn an endorsement from NYSAPE. Each submitted a résumé, filled out a detailed survey, and sat for a lengthy interview.
The organization also recruited some of the current candidates. David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center who has criticized the board’s recent policy agenda, said he fielded an email from opt-out organizers a couple of months ago asking if he planned to apply for a spot on the board. Though he said they did not explicitly ask him to apply, after he read the email, Bloomfield mulled over the choice and submitted an application.
NYSAPE has also endorsed Regents for chancellor and vice chancellor and suggested that the board choose its chancellor in April, though the vote traditionally takes place in March. Delaying the vote would exclude Tisch and Bottar from weighing in on their successors.
These types of interventions from an outside interest group are foreign to close observers of state education politics.
“I would say it’s extremely rare,” said Carl Korn, a spokesman for the state teachers union. “I’ve been here 22 years and I don’t remember it.”
Even more unsettling to many, the group appears focused on the one issue that unified it. Opt-out leaders say they represent parents broadly, but surveys of potential Regents candidates asked, “Do you support the right of parents to decide whether their children will participate in the NY State standardized exams?” Every endorsed candidate answered affirmatively and some expressed hearty support such as “Unequivocally!” or “Yes, absolutely.”
Regents should ignore a special interest group “aiming to alter the election system in favor of its own agenda,” said a statement by High Achievement New York, a coalition that promotes the Common Core.
It is anyone’s guess whether the endorsements will ultimately shape the board, but it is possible, said Billy Easton, the executive director of the advocacy organization Alliance for Quality Education, which does not formally endorse Regents candidates.
When asked if the opt-out movement could change the makeup of the Board of Regents, Easton chuckled.
“240,000 opt-outs,” he laughed. “Yeah, absolutely.”
Update: After publication David Bloomfield clarified that he received an email from NYSAPE.