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State Ed. Dept: Proposed regs on opt-out are not a penalty

Third-graders at the Oxhead Road Elementary School in

Third-graders at the Oxhead Road Elementary School in Centereach are shown taking a state exam in 2017. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

State education officials on Wednesday provided details of proposed new rules for dealing with school districts where large numbers of students boycott state tests, including a provision that could require districts to set aside federal money to encourage greater exam participation.

Such funding, for example, would be used for parent outreach in districts where student participation falls below acceptable levels for four consecutive years, according to a statement issued Wednesday by the State Education Department.

However, the statement rejected the assertion that directing the use of federal Title I money in this way could be considered a penalty. The assertion was advanced recently by state teacher-union leaders and others.

“The assertion that schools could face financial penalties for low participation rates is patently false and it’s disingenuous to twist the intent of the proposed regulations,” stated Emily DeSantis, the department’s assistant commissioner for public affairs.

Department staffers added that it was long-standing practice to direct schools to use Title I funds in specific ways, and that “it is in no way a financial penalty on districts to require them to use funds in accordance with legal requirements or to address areas of need.”

Title I, one of the federal government’s largest sources of school financial aid, is typically used to help struggling students. New York State’s plan to direct some of that money to boosting test participation is part of draft regulations, posted on May 9, in order to meet requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

The regulations are scheduled for discussion by the state’s policymaking Board of Regents at a monthly meeting early next week, department officials confirmed Wednesday.

The ESSA law requires that 95 percent of eligible students in every district nationwide participate in annual state testing. Few districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties meet that requirement, due to a series of organized test boycotts in recent years.

Draft regulations would empower the state education commissioner to require districts to set aside portions of their Title I funds, to be used in encouraging greater test participation. Any such requirement would be preceded by audits of local participation rates and would apply only when district improvement plans failed to boost participation.

New York State United Teachers, a union that supports parents who decide to boycott tests, has criticized the proposal sharply. In a letter to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on May 29, the union contended that the provision would “allow the Commissioner to impose a financial penalty.”

The group stood by that characterization in a statement Wednesday night.

“The effect of SED’s draft regulations would be to stigmatize and label schools with high opt outs, while possibly forcing them to direct money away from the classroom to combat parents’ unquestioned right to opt out. That fits the definition of penalty,” NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said.

A preliminary set of ESSA regulations, adopted by the Regents in September, required districts with high opt-out rates to adopt improvement plans, and to call upon regional BOCES for help if initial plans failed.

Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the Regents board, said he expected questions to be raised at the meeting about the latest proposed regulations, especially the Title I rule.

“That’s contrary to what the Regents were originally told,” Tilles said.

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