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Regents say Cuomo’s sharp criticism of their Common Core report is perplexing

ALBANY — Members of the Board of Regents bristled Monday at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s withering criticism of their efforts to address concerns about the state’s rollout of recent education policy changes.

Several officials on the 17-person policy-making body said they were perplexed by Cuomo’s singular focus on one regulation about teacher evaluations, which came nestled among 18 other items addressed in a report focused mostly on the state’s transition to the new Common Core standards. Some questioned if he or his office had read the full slate of regulations, while others said he might have confused some of the issues entirely.

“Maybe after he reads the whole thing, we can have a dialogue because that’s what I would hope for,” said Robert Bennett, a former chancellor who has served on the board since 1995. “This was a thorough, multi-item report that warrants a discussion, rather than the response we got.”

Cuomo took umbrage with the Regents’ decision to give teachers who get two “ineffective” ratings in a row a temporary line of defense during termination proceedings. Teachers would be permitted to argue that their districts did not adequately prepare them to help students be able to pass tougher tests aligned to the Common Core standards.

Cuomo characterized the move as “delaying the teacher evaluation system” and said it fit into a pattern of stalling on the issue by the Regents. “Today’s recommendations are another in a series of missteps by the Board of Regents that suggests the time has come to seriously reexamine its capacity and performance,” he said.

For Cuomo, the Regents are another target in his ongoing battle to make tougher teacher evaluations a reality, an effort that he has addressed every year of his administration. Two years ago, he blamed the Assembly for protecting the teachers union when initial legislation got passed in 2010. Last year, he criticized then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his part in New York City’s failure to implement teacher evaluations by the time of Cuomo’s mid-school year deadline of Jan. 17.

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch did not respond directly to Cuomo’s criticism, although she did refer back to comments she made earlier on Monday that highlighted a close relationship with the governor.

Several of her colleagues were more outspoken.

Regent James Tallon said he thought the report did all that it could within the State Education Department’s regulatory power. Any other changes would require legislative action from Cuomo, and Tallon said the Regents didn’t want to wade into that territory.

“The only thing that I didn’t quite understand about the governor’s statement was that he seemed to be attacking us for something we didn’t do,” Tallon said, referring to the delay allegations.

The Board of Regents exists as a separate body from the state legislature with the aim of insulating education policy decisions from short-term politics. Members are technically elected officials who serve five-year terms and are voted in by a panel of lawmakers. The panel is supposed to be made up of lawmakers in both houses, but lately the elections have primarily been dominated by the Democrat-controlled Assembly.

Because of its affiliation with the Assembly, which traditionally sides more often with teachers unions, the Regents are sometimes criticized as being too cozy to the interests of unions. Members of the board said they were familiar with the criticism and also noted that taking heat from the state governor was nothing new.

“Some governors along the way have challenged it, but I think its value is that it’s one step removed from gubernatorial politics,” Bennett said about the board.

“It’s sort of a natural tension,” Tallon added.

Cuomo’s strong response won accolades from a group that has joined the governor in pushing for tougher teacher evaluations. “We applaud the strong stand Governor Cuomo has taken today to address the shortcomings of the Board of Regents’ report,” said StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis.

But the Regents’ changes were welcomed by lawmakers in both the Senate and Assembly, who said the new regulations were steps in the right direction.

“On the whole, this plan does a number of things that address parents’ concerns,” said Sen. John Flanagan, who chairs the State Senate education committee.

“I think they’ve done, by regulation, what they can do,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of the Regents.

Both Silver and Flanagan said further legislative changes to the state’s teacher evaluation law were on the table but would not go into specifics. Last week, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle called for a two-year delay in tying Common Core test scores to teachers’ annual ratings, a move that would require legislative change. Cuomo, who will negotiate with lawmakers about their agenda in the coming weeks as Albany hashes out a budget for next year, responded gently to that suggestion at the time.

Privately, several people who follow state education policy and read the regulations said that Cuomo’s harsherresponse to the Regents was hard to understand.

“I see nothing in the Regents recommendations that delay the teacher evaluations,” said one of those people, who asked to stay anonymous in order to avoid jeopardizing a relationship with the governor. “What is he talking about?”