phase two

New York’s opt-out movement aims to influence policy, not just parents. Here’s how

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Takiema Smith, a parent at the Brooklyn New School, opted her child out of state exams in 2014.

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. 

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.