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How to build a DOE data watchdog: First, hire some experts

A city government regulator is poised to become the Department of Education’s new watchdog, but as the Assembly moves to extend mayoral control, details of how this will work are scarce.

In New York City and Albany, momentum has been building behind the idea for an independent body to check the DOE’s math. Currently, three proposed bills, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s bill, introduced last night, call for the Independent Budget Office and the comptroller to monitor the department.

A challenge in implementing the proposals is the IBO’s relative inexperience.

Created during the Giuliani administration to function as a publicly funded, neutral check on the mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, the IBO regularly issues reports on the mayor’s proposed budget and city taxes. Should Silver’s bill become law, the organization would be forced to grow a new arm devoted solely to scrutinizing the city’s education data.

“While we have statistical expertise we don’t necessarily have expertise around issues around test scores and how to sort them and weigh them,” a spokesman for the IBO, Doug Turetsky, said, adding that the organization has studied things like class size and school construction. “We doubled our number of education analysts last week when we hired a second one,” he said.

Of the three bills that delineate a role for the IBO, Silver’s contains the most detail. His bill, which is expected to pass the Assembly by Wednesday, calls for the IBO to “provide analysis and issue public reports regarding financial and educational matters of the city district.” The data would include graduation and dropout rates, enrollment projections, school utilization and class size numbers, test scores, and the delivery of services for bilingual students, disabled students, and those for whom English is a second language.

The bill also calls for the IBO to monitor the DOE’s use of federal funds, including Title I money, and “matters relating to city district finances.”

The IBO has “the infrastructure and the institutional culture to weave that function into their mission,” said David Bloomfield, a professor at Brooklyn College. Bloomfield was one of the first to suggest that the IBO take on this new responsibility.

Another question waiting for an answer is where the money will come from.

In this case, Silver’s bill is the least generous of the three. Whereas the “Better Schools Act” sponsored by Assemblyman Carl Heastie and a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Joan Millman call for the IBO to receive an additional 5 percent of the Office of Management and Budget’s allocation, Silver’s bill  2.5 percent of the OMB.

This would increase the IBO’s budget in 2010 by 25 percent, from roughly $3.1 to $3.9 million.

“It looks like a framework we can work with,” Turetsky said. “We’re used to running without a lot of extras.”

Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said that rather than handing the job to the IBO, the state should set up an independent agency to monitor education data.

“There’s no indication that they’ve [the IBO] ever done anything like this,” he said. “The state legislature is imposing mayoral control on the city, they also should take responsibility for the mayor using of all his powers to tamper with data.”

One group, the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, which formed last year to provide non-partisan data interpretation, is not in the running to become the DOE’s supervisor. This is for good reason, Bloomfield said.

The IBO and the research alliance “complement one another, but I don’t think that the research consortium, especially given the composition of its board, should be the independent source for data gathering,” Bloomfield said. Chancellor Joel Klein sits on the board of the research alliance.

In her testimony before the City Council last week, IBO director Ronnie Lowenstein said that though it was flattering for IBO to be considered for the job, the city would have to guarantee that the DOE would have to provide clean data.

Currently, many education researchers say they find it difficult to get information from the department.

“This not something we have sought,” Turetsky said. “But we’re ready for the challenge.”