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Tisch to Cuomo: Tougher teacher tenure requirements, faster dismissal process should be on the table

The state’s top education officials want to lengthen the probationary period for new teachers, overhaul the way teachers are terminated, and give the state more power over teacher evaluations.

They also said the state should have more authority over low-performing school districts, “arbitrary barriers” preventing charter schools from opening should be eliminated, and mayoral control in New York City should be renewed.

Those are among about two dozen positions from Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and soon-to-be acting Education Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin laid out in a 20-page letter sent on Thursday to Jim Malatras, the state director of operations for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The letter offers the first comprehensive look at what the Board of Regents and State Education Department are willing to support as Cuomo prepares to push for aggressive changes to the way teachers are hired, fired, and evaluated.

The letter was solicited by Malatras earlier this month in a letter that challenged Tisch and Berlin’s predecessor, John King, to take a stand on a series of thorny education-policy debates that Cuomo said he wants addressed as his second term gets underway.

Many of the other proposals and positions aren’t new, Tisch noted in an interview. Others were unsolicited, such as an increase in funding for underserved students, boosting school diversity and passing the DREAM Act.

But the letter’s contents stuck out because of the areas that Tisch and Berlin wade into that the State Education Department and Regents rarely speak up about, in part because they have limited power to change them.

“The questions and concerns outlined in the letter relate to issues of State Law, which are under the direct control of the State Legislature and the Governor, not the Department or the Board of Regents,” they write.

New York’s tenure review process is one example. Tisch and Berlin say one way to strengthen it is to change the law so that new teachers are required to work for five years, not three, before they are eligible for the added job protection.

Another is the due process law for teachers facing termination, which critics say make it too hard to remove incompetent teachers. Tisch and Berlin propose that lawmakers should get rid of the independent contractors who oversee the proceedings and replace them with state employees to speed up the process, which takes an average of six months.

Tisch’s letter was sent on the eve of Cuomo’s second inauguration ceremony and just days before he is to deliver a State of the State address. The governor has signaled his second term will feature a far more aggressive education agenda than he pursued when he came into office in 2011.

Recently, he vowed to take on what he has called the “monopoly of the education bureaucracy,” and said that the state should allow more charter schools to open and require tougher teacher evaluations. Malatras’ letter to Tisch and King earlier this month suggested that the governor will want to go even further.

Cuomo has also expressed frustration over his limited power when it comes to education policy. He has often criticized the Board of Regents, a 17-member volunteer board that appoints the commissioner and controls policy, for its closeness to the legislators who appoint them.

Cuomo is not the first governor to gripe about his limited power over education decisions. Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father, blamed the Regents for high dropout rates, and George Pataki repeatedly proposed abolishing the Board of Regents during his 12 years in office.

Tisch said she didn’t think any changes should be made to the way Regents are appointed. She also said the New York City mayor should remain in charge of schools, but that other cities considering the model should make the decision on their own.

It’s unclear which parts, if any, Cuomo will highlight in next week’s speech. But he has recently welcomed fights with the teachers unions. At roughly the same time that the State Education Department released the letter to reporters, New York State United Teachers were protesting the outside the governor’s mansion, where Cuomo was hosting a New Year’s Eve event.

Neither Malatras or Cuomo immediately responded to the letter’s contents, but StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group aligned with the governor, offered faint praise for some of the proposals, calling them “useful ideas.” It also drew a quick rebuke from United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who called it a “wish list of ideas that won’t help kids.”

Tisch also said that the letter is not meant to represent the positions of the entire Board of Regents, a sign that it was not uniformly embraced.

“I was asked a set of very direct questions,” Tisch said when asked if other Regents weighed in on the letter. “The letter was directed to me” and John King, whose last day as commissioner is today.